The home finale is here for St. John’s, with two more games to play. The NCAA Tournament is in sight, but not yet a lock; at 8-7 in the Big East, there are still chances for the kind of bad losses that could put St. John’s on the “precarious” side of the bubble.
This St. John’s team seems ready to play. Over the last two weeks, while the shooting has sputtered at times, the defense has locked in for home wins over Butler, Villanova and Seton Hall.
The loss to Providence was a struggle, though, and Xavier brings the same issues to the table — size and physicality that seem to confound St. John’s.
Xavier struggled in Big East play for a while, but in their four game winning streak, they have played like a top-25 team. Their offense has been decent, but their defense has been impressive, stifling the high-octane Creighton Blue Jays, handling Villanova easily, and dispatching Providence and Seton Hall.
Tonight’s game will be a hard one, chippy and physical.
Can St. John’s impose their brand of play on the Musketeers?
Who: St. John’s Red Storm (20-8, 8-7 Big East) vs Xavier Musketeers (15-13, 7-8 Big East)
Where: Carnesecca Arena (5,600)
When: Thursday, February 28, 6:30 PM
TV: FS1 | Fox Sports Online
Audio: 970 WNYM AM | TuneIn Radio
Odds: St. John’s, - 5.5
Injury/ personnel notes
- St. John’s: Mustapha Heron’s status will likely be known closer to game time. He did not practice yesterday.
- Xavier: Sophomore guard Elias Harden has been suspended for the game against St. John’s and will not make the trip to New York. He’s a good defender.
- Xavier: Keonte Kennedy has taken some time away from the Musketeers; he has been gone for five games.
St. John’s was eliminated from the Big East Tournament last year in a blowout by Xavier, 88-60. The Johnnies also lost twice to the Musketeers last season. At Carnesecca, the Johnnies fell 73-68 in what was the last of an 11-game losing streak, all in Big East play.
Rankings & School Notes
Current KenPom Ranking: 82
School size: 6,798 (4,645 undergraduates)
School is academically known for: basketball, business, psychology, nursing
Notable alumni: John Boehner (Majority Leader, US House), Charles Geschke (Adobe Systems founder), Robert Romanus (Mike Damone in Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Thomas Fogarty (vineyards, balloon catheter creator), Jim Bunning (senator, baseball player), William H Kelley (Jelly Belly Vice Chairman),
It’s been a long strange year for the Xavier Musketeers. Some decline was expected; after all, their all-time winningest coach left for Louisville, plus three senior stars departed along with another player. (Not to mention the big man recruit from nearby Covington Catholic who never made it to campus because of a sexual assault arrest).
The Big East’s almost-Kentucky outpost did have some decent talent coming in, with a trio of grad transfers. A three-game losing streak against good teams was one thing. A six game slide against the Big East (yes, including DePaul) was evidence that this team was sunk, everything was wrong and—
Then Xavier won four in a row, taking out Villanova and making them look small and inept, gritting out a win over Seton Hall, and wins over Providence and Creighton. That streak has brought the Musketeers back over .500, playing some of the best defensive ball in the league in that stretch.
In that stretch of four games, Xavier has shot well from inside the arc (55%) and outside the arc (38%) on their limited three-point attempts. The pace is deliberate, and the focus is to get their bigs into favorable situations, where they can score at the rim or pass to a cutting big going to the rim.
But the bugaboo about turnovers remains. The Musketeers have struggled to hold on to the ball, sometimes having the ball poked away or making the errant pass. Their defensive size is excellent, and they rebound well on offense. But their defensive rebounding is suspect (multiple games show struggles locating the right positioning, especially on long rebounds), but they do not force turnovers. And for a team with size, they do not often get to the free throw line.
Naji Marshall (#13), a 6’7” wing, is a decent ballhandler who is very effective attacking the rim in halfcourt play. He rebounds well from the small forward position, can shoot from outside, but is a devastating slasher with a quick first step who can catch an unsuspecting body going to the basket. Confronted with open jump shots, he will take them, though he’s shooting 33% from deep in conference play — decent, but more effective going to the basket.
Big man Tyrique Jones (#0) is an imposing, 6’9” physical force (approaching cartoon-muscle-arms) who takes what defenses give. Jones is a dunk threat, a shot-blocker, and he can get steals. He crashes the offensive glass regularly; on a good day he can score 18-20, on a day when he’s covered, he will make the right pass.
One thing to watch is how double-covering Jones or slowing Marshall with an extra defender leaves 6’11” big man Zach Hankins (#35) open. Hankins, a star on the Division II level for Ferris State, came to Xavier as a grad transfer. He’s fairly quick off the ground, dunking when given open space. He’s a very good shot blocker who plays to his height, a good offensive rebounder, and a so-so defensive rebounder.
The bigs can be a turnover-prone.
The starting guards, who were top-100 players before college, have stepped up decently. Junior guard Quentin Goodin (#3) has been solid in handing out assists and is a decent slasher with hops. Of note is the 6’4” guard’s 51% shooting percentage at the rim, fairly low for an athletic guard who draws fouls. His shooting from distance is at 33% in conference play.
Paul Scruggs (#1) is also a solid 6’3” passer with a strong frame. A better shooter from deep at 41% in Big East play than teammate Goodin, Scruggs can also get to the rim and pull up in mid-range. His turnover rates have been a little high.
With Keonte Kennedy and now Elias Harden out, Xavier’s bench will be grad transfers Kyle Castlin (#2) and Ryan Welage (#32). Castlin was a strong shooter at Columbia, but hasn’t found the consistent touch with Xavier. Castlin, 6’4”, has scored three points in his last five games, and has provided little else on the floor for the Musketeers. Welage, standing at 6’10”, is mostly a three-point shooter; he’s averaged just over a three per game in his last five contests.
Keys to the Game
Defuse the inside players. The Red Storm need to make entry passes inside hard, with deflections and traps. The team needs to make running the Xavier offense difficult, and make the big men pause before making their moves. The Johnnies also need to be competent on the glass, giving up only a few offensive boards.
High-octane effort. Whether the Red Storm can actually get the tempo up to their liking is a question, but the effort should not be lacking. The Red Storm needs to force live-ball turnovers, attack with authority, and keep the ball moving on offense to generate mismatches on switches, opportunities for threes, and chances for Shamorie Ponds to take advantage of chaos.
Don’t foul. The Musketeers can get content taking jump shots; the Johnnies defense needs to make shooting hard, but not so hard that players like Naji Marshall get chances to drive to the basket. Adjust as necessary.
St. John’s wins this one at home, 72-68, if they bring the effort they had against Seton Hall.