Surveying the Princeton roster during warmups on the floor of Madison Square Garden, it was clear the Tigers were a taller team than St. John’s, the kind that could slow the game down and work the ball inside to their big men, hitting the offensive boards for put backs.
It all made sense but nothing was further from the truth once the game started.
St. John’s entered the Holiday Festival a clear favorite, and Madison Square Garden was filled in red. Feeling positive, some commented on the willingness of Shamorie Ponds to play the role of distributor instead of scorer was evidence of a togetherness on the team. “A lot of guys looking to become a first round draft choice would not be willing to sacrifice their own scoring average the way Ponds has been willing to do,” one told me. Other fans added that Ponds steps forward as a scorer, mostly when it is clear that the team needs him to score.
This seemed like the kind of game where Shamorie would be able to show his passing, and not pull the team out of scoring droughts.
It all made sense but nothing was further from the truth once the game started.
The only thing predictable was that 6’9” Richard Aririguzoh would win the opening jump from 6’5” Mustapha Heron of St. John’s.
Fifteen seconds later came the first of thirteen made three-pointers by the Tigers. The Princeton lead extended to four by the 19:14 mark when Heron responded.
Heron drove across the paint, missed the layup but grabbed an offensive rebound amidst the taller Tiger defenders. A pass out and a return pass to Heron at the top of the key resulted in a three for the Red Storm’s first points. Two Shamorie Ponds drives — the second off of a steal — followed and the Johnnies were up 7-4 at the 17:16 mark of the game.
Princeton hit its second three at 15:06 to take the lead at 11-10. It was a warning sign that the Tigers were anything but a 32% three-point shooting team. St. John’s, noting Princeton’s height advantage and its reputation of slowing the game down, working the ball for the best possible shot, was providing support for those defending Aririguzoh. The Tigers took advantage with crisp passes to long distance shooters in the corners and wings and fans mumbled, “here we go again”.
As Princeton was scoring with primarily long distance threes, the Red Storm were aggressive in attacking the basket and pushed the ball down court on every opportunity. They aggressively double teamed and stepped into passing lanes, which resulted in twelve steals in the first half.
At the 13:19 mark, LJ Figueroa hit a driving Justin Simon, who was fouled. Simon hit one of two foul shots to give the Johnnies a 15-14 lead. Princeton responded 10 seconds later with a three by Devin Cannady, taking back the lead.
A full court baseball pass from Simon to Figueroa, who laid the ball in, led to chants of “defense… defense” throughout the Garden. The Johnnies had regained the lead... again.
A Clark three extended the Johnnies lead to 27-22 and it became apparent that this was not to be the “low scoring game” some anticipated, dominated by crafty Tigers. Instead the Tigers decided to push the ball at St. John’s. For a half, their game plan was successful, even with a multitude of turnovers.
At 6:32 the Johnnies demonstrated what they were capable of as four passes by four Johnnies led to a Figueroa layup and a 34-24 lead. The team looked unstoppable on offense, but what could be done about those Tiger threes?
The only blemishes on offense were two failed alley-oops and a cross court pass easily intercepted by Princeton. But Marvin Clark II made up for the Johnnies error with strong defense, stealing the ball from the Tigers, being fouled and hitting one out of two. The Johnnies led by nine at 5:43, but could not put Princeton away.
Leading scorer Devin Cannady was heating up and eventually hit five three pointers in the first half. Though the Red Storm surged ahead, Cannady and fellow guard, Jaelin Llewellyn, kept hitting pro-length threes.
The score was tied at 38-38 after the Tigers Ryan Schwieger joined the long distance party. Then at 0:45 Figueroa drove the left side of the paint for a layup and was fouled. He made the free throw giving the Red Storm a 41-38 lead at the half.
Princeton led in assists eight to four at the half, a statistic that surprised St. John’s fans who had witnessed good ball movement. The question in everyone’s mind was: what adjustments could be made to take the effectiveness of the Princeton three point shooters, particularly Cannady, away?
The St John’s adjustments at halftime were immediately evident. On defense, the Johnnies extended their man to man defense to take away the open long range threes.
On offense, they played Figueroa at the high post and fed him in the center of the Tiger zone. Figueroa responded with three 10-foot jumpers on successive possessions and the Johnnies lead rose to five.
As the Johnnies were extending their defense to take away the threes, Princeton countered by driving into the paint for layups. Some were successful while others resulted in turnovers.
More effective were the Tigers’ efforts to feed Aririguzoh deep in the paint. He would back down the Johnnies defenders, who did not give in and maintained their position. But undersized, playing one-on-one defense meant Aririguzoh ended the game shooting five for seven, taking down six rebounds and hitting his free throws for a total of fourteen points. He was an effective weapon for Princeton.
At 13:20 it was Marvin Clark’s turn to contribute. He stole the ball, drove down the court and dunked the ball bringing fans to their feet. As the Tigers tried to counter Clark stepped across the lane to challenge a Tiger driving to the basket, causing him to lose control of the ball out of bounds.
It then became a “Heron feeds Ponds and Ponds returns the favor” game to extend the lead to fourteen at the 11:00 mark, but could not fully put Princeton away.
After the lead was extended to nineteen, Princeton began double teaming Red Storm ball handlers as they crossed mid court and over the next four minutes outscored the Johnnies 18 to 5 and the Red Storm lead was six.
But the Tigers never scored over the final three and a half minutes while Ponds and Simon scored nine points between them resulting in an 89 to 74 victory.
Ponds led the way scoring led the team in scoring with 26 on 11/18 shooting. Figueroa came in second with 17 points, hitting 8/12 shots, many during those first few minutes of the second half when the outcome of the game was in doubt.
Three others were in double figures, Clark with 13, Heron with 12 and Simon with 10. In addition, Dixon hit two threes in the first half, one when the thirty second clock was about to expire. It was a team effort.
The Johnnies also outrebounded the taller Tigers 38 to 29. Once again there was balance. Figueroa and Clark each had eight total rebounds while Ponds and Simon had five, Trimble four and Heron three.
Three-point defense, again
First, let’s look at some numbers.
- Princeton entered the game shooting 32% of their threes.
- In the first Half. Princeton shot 9/17, a 53% clip.
- In the second half they shot 4/14, a 28% clip.
- For the entire game Princeton, shot at a 42% clip.
There is work to do.
The extended defense in the second half took away some of the Tigers’ shooting effectiveness. However, this does not mean the answer is to extend the defense in such an aggressive way at the beginning of a game. The Red Storm had sixteen steals in the game, twelve in the first half.
It appears that the more balanced approach at the beginning of the game, though giving up threes, also led to more turnovers. More turnovers meant more fast break opportunities.
One fan commented, “do you remember Coach Mullin’s first squad in 2015 to 16? I don’t think they had a fast break basket until half the season was over.” That is not the case now, and the ability to step in and make steals is directly correlated with fast break opportunities and baskets.
Against Princeton the halftime adjustments worked. The question is: does a veteran team like the Johnnies have to wait for the halftime break to successfully adjust the game plan?
Set plays in the second half and the missing big man
The adjustment at the beginning of the second half of feeding Figueroa in the high post gave the Johnnies a play that was consistently successful against the Princeton zone. Later on in the half the Johnnies ran the same play with Heron.
Fast track back to November 1, 2018. At the beginning of the Maryville exhibition the Red Storm were feeding Sedee Keita down low, hoping to develop his game. He had some successes, and then was injured early in the Bowling Green game.
Kedee is expected back soon, hopefully in time to get some work in before the Big East season begins. He should be a force on the boards and on defense. It can be anticipated that plays will be put in place for Keita as a post presence, hoping for success similar to what Figueroa and Heron had setting up in the high post against Princeton.
The success of Figueroa, who has led the team in rebounding while holding the third highest point total on the team, would suggest that, at first, Keita will come off the bench as he gradually works his way back into the rotation.
As the season moves forward, the team’s ability to incorporate offensive sets featuring entry passes into the high and low post will present needed opportunities to break down defenses and open up opportunities for guards to attack the rim, a successful component of this year’s offense.
This does not suggest that instinctive aggression on offense be replaced by calculated plays. There is a need for both. Success on set plays opens defensive cracks to be exploited by the multitude of playmakers on the team.
The Red Storm are unselfish and moving the ball, giving up opportunities for good shots to pass off to teammates with even better opportunities. Some of that is instinctive and some of it is attitude. There are many components to be balanced in this offense and there are three games before the Big East schedule to accomplish this and get better.