As fans began filling the seats in preparation for a game with Staten Island’s Wagner College, the talk in the stands was about the three-point defense by the Johnnies.
Many fans had read the comments of Justin Simon in the N.Y. Post, earlier in the day, stating that the Johnnies were working hard and focused on the need to consistently defend. Some pointed to the second half of the Princeton game a week earlier and how there was a noticeable improvement.
Would this be the day that a full game of defense would come to be?
It was also noted that the average height of the starting frontcourts slightly favored the Seahawks, while the guards of St. John’s had a size advantage over the Seahawk guards. Since Wagner was known as an offensive rebounding team, the question to be answered was: would the Red Storm at least break even in the battle of the boards?
The game opened with a Seahawk score, but afterwards the Johnnies defense was evident. Pressure led to a Seahawk thirty-second shot clock violation at the 18 minute mark.
A well-executed Shamorie Ponds pass to Mustapha Heron was followed by a handoff play; Ponds dashed past Heron to an uncontested driving layup tied the score.
After the Seahawks built a 10-7 lead at 14:40, St. John’s called a time out and reopened play with a feed to Mustapha Heron down low. Heron was fed low in the paint, quickly drove the left baseline for a layup and was fouled, hitting his free throw, tying the score. The teams traded the lead back and forth for the next several minutes.
At the 10-minute mark of the half Bryan Trimble Jr. entered the game, blocked a layup attempt by one of the Seahawks and followed it with a three-pointer that gave the Johnnies a four-point lead at 17 to 13.
At the 6:08 mark 5’11” Chase Freeman hit a three and Wagner was ahead 23-19. Freeman spent much of the first half chasing down Shamorie Ponds and a seven year old fan commented that “number 2 (Ponds) and number 12 (Freeman) are having their own game”. It was an accurate depiction of much of the game — a one-on-one contest.
With 3:51 left in the first half the Johnnies led 26-23. The three point percentages of both teams were under 30 percent.
The Johnnies had a chance to pull ahead but Justin Simon missed the front end of a one and one, then and Marvin Clark II hit just one of two foul shots and the lead was only four. Freeman hit a second three and the Red Storm lead was again one point. A Ponds steal with a pass to a breaking Figueroa at 1:57 increased the lead to a 29 to 26.
Two Seahawk free throws ended the first half scoring as the Red Storm led by an uncomfortable one, 29 to 28 at the break.
Recalling the Princeton game a week ago, fans noted that first half was also relatively low scoring. In this game, Wagner hung in as well, making just enough threes, coupled with inconsistent offensive play by St. John’s. In contrast to previous games, St. John’s did not have a significant advantage in forcing turnovers.
The game took a turn early in the second half.
The Red Storm held the Seahawks to just four points in the first five minutes and jumped to a 44-32 lead. In addition to the defensive stands, the Johnnies passing was crisper and often involved three or more Red Storm players. Ponds was driving into the middle, pulling Seahawk defenders towards him, and pitching to open teammates for uncontested threes. Figueroa, Clark, Heron and Dixon all scored off such plays.
Still, there were defensive flaws. Chase Freeman of Wagner took advantage of the Johnnies switching defenders. On several occasions 6’7” Clark was seen guarding Freeman at the top of the key while 6’1” Ponds was under the basket attempting to front the Wagner big men, who were picking up their game of attacking the offensive boards.
The even rebounding statistics of the first half moved in the favor of the Seahawks as the second half progressed. St. John’s did indeed hold down the three-point shooting to 31% for the game but the rebounding margin for the game slightly went to Wagner, 39-35.
So how did the game go from a one point halftime lead to a fifteen point victory? For starters the Red Storm shot 30 percent on threes for the first half. At the end of the game that percentage rose to 48. The Johnnies can definitely shoot, particularly when their guards drive into the paint and kick out to open shooters. Ponds was outstanding as he consistently drove and kicked out to teammates.
One very nice sequence occurred at the 7:00 minute mark. Ponds slowed the pace down, taking time off the clock. Clark came forward to set a screen around which Ponds drove to the foul line and then passed behind the back to Clark.
Clark faked a 20-footer and passed by to Ponds at the top of the key. He cut towards the basket, receiving a pass back from Ponds and laid the ball in for a 20-point lead, 65-45, at 7:09. This was ball movement of experienced players on a now experienced team.
At just under six minutes left to play, Greg Williams entered the game, followed two minutes later by Josh Roberts and Marcellus Earlington. Each demonstrated an aggressiveness driving to the basket or rebounding. Williams hit two free throws for the only points scored by the freshmen.
Concerns about free throw shooting
The Red Storm hit 61% of their free throws.
It was slightly better than Wagner’s 57% but 61% will not win closely contested Big East games, which will be coming soon. The Johnnies also missed on front ends of one and ones, losing additional opportunities to score.
Over the other three December games the Red Storm have hit 67% against Princeton; 63% against Mount St Mary’s and an acceptable 77% against Georgia Tech.
The Red Storm have had a better free throw percentage against the better competition. In addition to the Georgia Tech game they hit 75% against Rutgers, 84% against California, and 79% against VCU.
They can do better than the performance in the last three games.
Passing – getting the balance right
The Red Storm assisted on 57% of their shots, 18 of 32 made baskets, led by Shamorie Ponds’ 14 assists.
The Johnnies clearly share the ball. Sometimes the team ignores opportunities to attack the basket in attempts to be unselfish and find open teammates. Ponds was doing this in past games and the “pass first” attitude seems to be wearing off on his teammates. It is a good attitude but players need to strike the right balance of taking the opportunities to attack the basket when circumstances on the court call for it.
What percentage of three-pointers made by an opponent would be considered a successful defense? Wagner took 29 three-point shots and converted nine times, hitting 31%. They converted nine out of 25 two-point tries for 36%. (Wagner had 12 offensive rebounds to six for the Johnnies, an area of concern.)
The Red Storm are developing a smoothness in their ability to switch off their assignments. However, tight man to man defense does not allow for defenders to stray too far from their assignment in an attempt to cut off passing lanes and make steals. When each player stays squarely with his man good defensive things happen.
With the help of an occasional three man press in the backcourt, the Red Storm created several 30-second violations as well as forcing bad shots and careless passes by Wagner as the clock was winding down.
There are two more games before the Big East schedule. The team in both the Princeton and Wagner games was able to make adjustments at halftime turning close games into more convincing victories. Each game improvement is seen except in free throw shooting. This is an area that can be addressed.
While leaving Carnesecca Arena a fan commented that, although the Johnnies schedule was weak, “we did not lose any games to teams we were supposed to defeat.” Other talented teams have lost games against weaker rivals and that is one reason there are only nine undefeated teams left.
It is reasonable to anticipate an undefeated record when beginning the Big East schedule but it is still one game at a time; the next two games will have their challenges, just as this Wagner game did.