St. John’s went into their game against Arizona as underdogs.
They emerged. victorious, as intriguing challengers in the Big East — yes, flawed, but clearly good enough to be a thorn in the side of teams like Arizona and West Virginia.
But the Big East is a different creation — teams that know each other, coaches that know tendencies, games that are lost on late-game or mid-game execution mistakes. Butler, who split with St. John’s last season, is executing to the level that they expect, a level that has allowed the Indiana school to play above their assumed talent level.
St. John’s has had a week to prepare and repair, with Mustapha Heron returning to practice this week, but a gametime decision, per the NY Post. Can the Red Storm match the challenge of a physical and composed Butler squad in the first Big East game for head coach Mike Anderson?
Who: St. John’s Red Storm (11-2) vs. #11/#10 Butler Bulldogs (12-1)
When: Wednesday, December 31st, 7:30 PM ET
Where: Carnesecca Arena, Queens, NY
TV: FS1 | FoxSportsGo
Audio: St. John’s website provides free audio for the game. The stream can be found by clicking here.
Last Season: Two Butler players feasted on the Johnnies in Indiana for 54 points on the Bulldogs’ way to an 80-71 win — a game where they led by as many as 22 points. On the flip, though, St. John’s looked to be finding their stride in an overtime win over Butler at Carnesecca, where Mustapha Heron played (mostly) hero, and Josh Roberts played minutes.
Butler has been one of the nation’s most fearsome defensive outfits this season, a needed bounceback from a pair of years of mediocre defense. They rank #9 in defensive points per 100 possessions given up at 87.7, which is spectacular. (And they are ranked #7 in KenPom’s advanced metrics.)
LaVall Jordan’s team held their most recent opponent, Louisiana-Monroe, to 53 points per 100 possessions — 36 total points in the actual game (68 possessions). They have given up a high of 67 (to Stanford) and have held Florida to 62 points, Purdue to 61 points, and Baylor to 53 points (their only loss; Butler scored 52).
The defensive bugaboos — middling defensive rebounding and a lack of quickness to slow down opponents — have been improved with much of the same cast in the backcourt and some improvements inside.
The Bulldogs play a slow-paced (332nd in the country, just over 65 possessions per game), grinding offense and defense, assisting on a high percentage of baskets and better scoring inside (both on slashing plays to the rim and in the post) than on three-pointers.
Kamar Baldwin (#3), a high-usage guard who plays with strength and toughness, gets the main publicity for the team. He’s a solid shooter, scoring on 34% of his threes and 45% of his twos. A jump shooter, he has struggled to get to the line this season more than previous years. He is a very good rebounder and passer, and will be the player the Bulldogs look to for creative scoring.
Defensively, Baldwin has speed, energy, and the will to fight, just as his backcourt-mate Aaron Thompson (#2). Thompson, an extreme non-shooter from outside the arc, could effectively be ignored when the Butler offense is stagnant. But when it is moving, he’s the player who finds the scoring pass — and can get to the rim with quickness.
The difference makers have been inside. Brian Nze (#10) followed Coach LaVall Jordan as a transfer from Milwaukee to Butler, while sophomore Bryce Golden (#33) has made an impressive leap in his sophomore season. Golden, while not yet shining as a defensive rebounder at 6’9”, has been an impressive scorer in the post. He can extend his range a bit and be effective but he’s has deft moves inside.
Nze, 6’7”, is also a very good scorer inside, but provides rebounding on both ends; he’s the offensive rebounder that St. John’s will need to worry about. Nze is also a solid shot blocker.
On the wing, Sean McDermott (#22) maintains a strong shooting game with a sneaky ability to drive to the hoop given an open lane. He rarely turns the ball over and shoots with confidence. Last season, he only played in the Butler win, a game where he grabbed 12 rebounds.
Jordan Tucker (#1), a White Plains native, had a strong first game against the Red Storm but a poor second game against the Johnnies. Coming off the bench, the 6’7” wing can make an impact with his athleticism, getting to the line; he can also fall in love with a deep jump shot that doesn’t always fall in the hoop for him. The sub-.40% shooting inside the arc continues to be a struggle for him.
Forward Christian David (#25) is an energetic player who can be a threat on the offensive glass.
Henry Baddley (#20) is a four-year wing with a solid reputation for defense.
Derrik Smits (#21) is, yes, the son of Rik Smits. At 7’1”, the Valparaiso grad transfer has just gotten game action in the last three contests, but the vision of a 7-foot shot impediment will get St. John’s considering some shots.
Keys to the Game
Overall, St. John’s will need to slow down the Bulldog shooting, find points, not waste possessions, and show poise; a stretch where players attack to look for their own shot against the grain of the game could be welcome... or the beginning of a poor sequence.
Disrupt behind the arc. The Red Storm have to make looks confusing for the likes of Kamar Baldwin and Jordan Tucker, making them slashers. Nick Rutherford, who is from Indianapolis, will get first crack at slowing down the slashing guard. Keeping Butler a jump shooting team is priority.
Patient, hardworking performances. St. John’s may get Mustapha Heron back, but Heron cannot choose to go it alone. He cannot win this game with just himself and LJ Figueroa. The team has to share the ball, but also needs to defend relentlessly, show a lot of hustle, power through contact, and pay a lot of focus on free throws.
Crash the glass well. Josh Roberts and Julian Champagnie’s ability to get scrappy, second chance opportunities against this team will help the Johnnies pull out a win in their conference and home Big East opener.
Butler is rolling right now, but so is St. John’s. It will be a tight matchup; but Butler prevails, 67-63.