Fans entered Carnesecca Arena nervous. Some stated that the Xavier Musketeers reminded them of Providence... and everyone knew the struggles the team had with the Friars.
Fans were concerned about the team’s ability to compete on the boards and were glad that, with Mustapha Heron out again, it was Sedee Keita starting, not Bryan Trimble Jr.
“We need the defense and rebounding of Keita,” was a common sentiment. One fan, expecting to be on the short end of the rebounding battle, summarized, “we’d better make our threes.”
The first minute of play started out well for the Red Storm. Two steals and a layup by LJ Figueroa put the Johnnies up 2-0.
The lead would not last long as Naji Marshall of Xavier hit two threes. One fan, who had watched Xavier a few times, stated, “you have to guard him. He can shoot.”
Shamorie Ponds drove the left lane and passed into the corner for Marvin Clark II, who hit a three; the Xavier lead was down to 6-5.
On the next possession, Keita got caught in a switch and had to guard Quentin Goodin of Xavier. Goodin attempted to drive across the lane and Keita impressed by moving his feet laterally and causing Goodin to abort his drive and give the ball up.
However, Goodin was not to be denied. He later hit a three capping off a 7-0 Xavier run and a 13-5 lead. In less than five minutes the Musketeers, not known for their long distance shooting, had hit three three-pointers to one for St. John’s.
Bryan Trimble Jr. and Josh Roberts entered the game, first off the bench. Shortly thereafter, Ponds drove into the paint and pitched to Trimble in the right corner, who buried a three. Figueroa drove the right side of the lane, converting a 10-foot floater. A Clark three at the 13:52 mark tied the score at 13.
But a 9-0 run for Xavier extended the lead to 22-13 just two and a half minutes later.
Xavier was in an aggressive 1-3-1 zone and Ponds repeatedly was thwarted trying to penetrate the zone by driving into it.
Uncharacteristic sloppy ball handling by the Johnnies added to the lead. Justin Simon made a nice block of a Zach Hankins shot but, while crossing midcourt, was pickpocketed by Marshall, who took the ball in for a layup and a 19 to 13 lead.
The media timeout at 10:33 found Xavier leading 22-13. They led in almost all categories including total rebounds (10 to six) and, surprisingly, steals (four to two).
The Xavier margin ten vacillated between five and twelve points as the teams played out the first half. At the under-four timeout it was noted that Xavier was outrebounding the Johnnies 16 to nine and that the Johnnies had yet to go to the free throw line. Ponds had five assists, mostly kick out passes off of drives into the paint, but no points.
With Xavier still in a 1-3-1 zone Clark took a pass at the foul line, turned and hit a cutting Roberts for a layup. A fan exclaimed, “now that’s how you beat a zone.”
With under 10 seconds remaining in the half Ponds drove the lane and put up a five foot runner that dropped into the basket then popped back out. It was that kind of half for the Red Storm who fought hard but found themselves down by eight.
Fans wondered would the Red Storm press to counter the overwhelming advantage Xavier had inside the paint?
The half started with a Figueroa drive and a drop off to Josh Roberts, who dunked the ball.
The score dropped the deficit to six, 38-32. The crowd began to come alive with calls of “defense… defense.”
Those chants were soon stifled by the play of Xavier. The Musketeers came with the plan to attack low and hard. Simon picked up two quick fouls trying to guard 6’11” Zach Hankins, giving away six inches.
A Ponds layup was followed by a Roberts layup on a feed from Clark (after a Simon steal), kept the Johnnies within sight of the Musketeers.
At the media timeout at 15:51 the Xavier lead was at seven, 46-39. Xavier still dominated the boards, but the Johnnies pressure defense was starting to take its toll. The Red Storm had seven steals to six for Xavier.
Trimble was doing his part to contribute in Heron’s absence, hitting his third three to keep the deficit at six. Shortly thereafter he brought the crowd to its feet as he deflected the ball from 6’9” Tyrique Jones as he was about to go up for a dunk.
A Ponds drive plus a made free throw cut the lead to three, 58-55 with 10 minutes to go.
With a half of a half to play the Johnnies were within range and the St. John’s bench called for everyone to stand up and the crowd responded.
But there was no coordinated cheers of “defense”. Rather, the crowd was becoming angry over the abundance of fouls called on Red Storm players and some missed calls on Xavier — in particular a traveling call on a Xavier front line player.
A 17-4 spurt by Xavier over the next six minutes included technical fouls on Trimble, Ponds and on Coach Mullin.
Despite a sixteen point deficit the crowd had not given up. The Johnnies rallied behind scoring from Figueroa; with 1:14 to play and Xavier holding a 10 point lead and having possession, the crowd remained.
The Johnnies rewarded them by cutting the lead on a three from the right wing by Ponds with 47 seconds to play.
But that was as close as the team could come and Xavier strode out of Carnesecca Arena with an 84-73 victory.
Everyone knew it. Keeping Xavier off of the offensive glass was a challenge for the Red Storm when the game began. The challenge was not met.
Xavier pulled down 14 offensive rebounds to 14 defensive rebounds for the Johnnies.
Xavier grabbed half of the possible offensive boards, which is impressive, for them.
On several occasions, good defense by St. John’s resulted in a missed Musketeer shot but an offensive rebound for Xavier. Sometimes, the rebound led to a put back; other times it resulted in Xavier resetting its offense and taking time off the clock as the Johnnies were fighting back to take the lead.
There is nothing more deflating than working hard on defense to cause a pressured shot to go awry then not to get a rebound.
What happened? Here are some informative stats comparing minutes played to rebounds taken:
Justin Simon: six rebounds in 35 minutes (one per six min)
LJ Figueroa: three defensive rebounds in 32 minutes (one per 11 min)
Marvin Clark II: four rebounds in 36 minutes (one per 12 min)
Josh Roberts: one rebound in 16 minutes
Greg Williams Jr.: one rebound in nine minutes
Ponds, Trimble, Marcellus Earlington, and Keita: zero rebounds
Defensive responsibilities played a role. If an assignment kept a defender away from the basket, he would not be in rebounding position. However, Xavier seemed a little quicker getting to long rebounds and traffic rebounds.
Was it boxing out? Was it the height of Xavier? Top frontline players for Xavier averaged 6’9” while the top starters for the Johnnies defending them averaged 6’7”. The tallest Johnnie, Sedee Keita, 6’9” 235 pounds, took down no rebounds while playing only 11 minutes. 6’9” Josh Roberts replaced him and took down one defensive rebound — and two offensive rebounds.
Is it time for Josh Roberts to get more minutes? Or do the Johnnies go even smaller, sacrificing rebounds for speed and pressure on the ball?
Turnovers, free throws and technical fouls
The Johnnies plan to pressure the Musketeers was partly responsible for sending the Musketeers to the line 33 times. They made 25 of their free throws.
In contrast the Johnnies only went to the line five times, converting on four.
Fans were noticeably (and loudly, with language that would earn a technical if on the court) upset by some of the calls made by officials in the second half. Did the officials call the game more tightly in the second half? If so, it is something players and coaches need to adjust to.
Technical fouls were called on players and head coach Mullin. A team trying to come back from a deficit cannot afford to give an opponent extra foul shots to convert and the ball out of bounds. The protests won no advantage in future calls.
When trying to come back aggressiveness is, understandably, on the increase. Fans may not recognize that basketball officials are human and bad calls will be made. St. John’s needed to adjust to the way the game was being called. That said, the extraordinary difference in foul shots in the game was indeed extraordinary.
A good team not a deep team
All season long the starting five have been dubbed the most talented in the Big East. But the starting five does not fully define a team; the quality of depth often makes a difference.
The reserves have picked up their contributions in recent games. With Mustapha Heron sidelined, the team is the starting four, plus one who has a chance to make a mark. That one has been either Keita or Trimble.
Bryan Trimble provided some offensive spark last night, hitting 3/5 three point attempts. He also made a nice defensive play stripping the ball from Tyrique Jones as he went up for a dunk.
Josh Roberts provided nine points and took down three rebounds in 16 minutes of play.
Greg Williams Jr. played strong defense and hit his one three point attempt. In 47 minutes of play, these three combined for 20 points, two steals and four rebounds.
The expectation was that, if St. John’s was hitting their threes they would be victorious. The team was reasonably accurate last night, but it was not enough.
The loss of any one of the starting five will, it seems, require extraordinary contributions from one or two of the other starters. Ponds and Clark provided that against Seton Hall. Only Figueroa out-performed against Xavier. It was not enough.
The Johnnies are tied for third place with Xavier with an 8-8 record.
Two teams in the league are 6-9 and two, Providence and DePaul, have lost 10.
One win in the last two games should assure that the Red Storm do not have to play on March 13, the first night of the Big East tournament. Avoiding the dreaded play-in game appears doable.
Two road games against two teams who have beaten the Johnnies at home will be challenging.
Keeping cool when adversity arises will be critical. The starting five are mostly veterans and for Marvin Clark II, these are his last games as a Johnnie. He demonstrated against Seton Hall the ability to bounce back from a difficult game in Providence.
Is there a needed bounce back game in Clark, Ponds, or Simon?
Will Heron heal enough to play in one of the next two games and hopefully both?
Will one or more of the second teamers continue to step forward? To be continued.