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Three takeaways: St. John’s struggles on defense, inside

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The game against Kansas highlighted some season-long struggles for the Red Storm.

Mike Anderson wonders how to get the team over the hump
Nick Bello

So. About last night...

St. John’s took a loss on the chin against the Kansas Jayhawks at the new UBS Arena [continuing the whole “home team has never won at UBS Arena narrative”].

Facts: Kansas is a top-10 team. Also facts: few people expected St. John’s to lose by that kind of deficit.

St. John’s fell behind double digits early and re-dug their hole late, and it’s not dissimilar to the hole the Red Storm dug against Indiana or St. Francis NY.

The hope this year was that this team, though new, would have fewer lapses in judgements this season than last year’s newcomers (in particular) had.

But the defense struggled mightily, and in ways they have struggled all season.

The defense struggled all game

The Red Storm found themselves taken out of position by an aggressive offensive team, gave up nearly 50% of possible offensive rebounds — leading to 15 (!!) more shots from the field for Kansas. And the Red Storm allowed 48 of the Jayhawks’ 95 points in the paint. Kansas took 33 shots at the rim (layups, putbacks, and dunks), including 21 of their 23 two-point attempts in the second half.

Credit due: Kansas is extremely good at fast ball movement in a way that most other college basketball programs are not (including Villanova, if you are thinking of talented and precise teams). Over the years under Bill Self, his teams that have struggled the most struggle with the ball sticking, and quite a few guards have either transferred or seen their time limited because that cannot do the job Self wants. The ball does not stick.

For St. John’s pressure defense to work, the Red Storm needs players to have to think about where they are going to pass the ball — they need the ball to stick, and then the Johnnies pounce. When opponents get through the pressure — which also requires St. John’s to score to set up presses — there are opportunities in the half court, especially when an opponent can exploit a late rotation.

Even given that, the Red Storm defense is not where it needs to be. There were slow rotations and confused rotations. There was slow reactions in transition defense. But most notably, the Jayhawks exploited an inability of St. John’s to stay in front of their man. Christian Braun exploited this on baseline drives, and each player playing center did not react quickly enough to keep him from scoring.

Some of the players — Julian Champagnie and Tareq Coburn in particular, struggled to keep their assigned player in front of them. And Kansas exploited those issues to drive into the paint, cutting into whatever defensive shape the Johnnies had.

Allowing 1.25 points/ possession over the course of the game is hard to overcome, and was the season’s worst defensive performance. So even with the offensive spurts, the lack of stops kept the Johnnies from getting over the hump.

Interiors

Without Joel Soriano, who only played 10 minutes, the Johnnies could not play inside out. Perhaps the lack of an interior look also kept the Johnnies from being able to break down their defenders or use screens to get into the paint.

O’Mar Stanley gave some decent minutes, and Esahia Nyiwe had some moments, but they combined for 17 minutes, and also struggled to slow players like Mitch Lightfoot and David McCormack.

Unlike last season, the Johnnies don’t yet have a reliable forward who can reasonably defend in the paint and draw centers to the outside with their shooting. Marcellus Earlington provided that last season; Aaron Wheeler has not yet commanded that respect yet, and neither has Nyiwe.

Offensive flow

But the Red Storm’s offense also struggled. On a per-possession basis, only the game against NJIT, where the last 10 minutes of the second half was filled with misses and turnovers was a worse performance than last night.

The Johnnies took nearly half of their shots from beyond the arc, and another quarter of their shots from the (inefficient) midrange. It was a choppy performance, helped only by Posh Alexander and Dylan Addae-Wusu’s ability to bully their way to points in the first half, while Julian Champagnie was well-defended. Kansas got back in transition, and St. John’s spacing in transition offense also was lacking.

The team could not get clean catch-and-shoot looks for either Stef Smith or Tareq Coburn. Coburn, in particular, has scored only eight points since the Saint Peter’s game — the span of five contests, one of which he missed. Aaron Wheeler actually got some clean looks, but could not convert.

But on the whole, one thing was consistent — the Johnnies offense was not as sharp as it needs to be. Smith needs to set up for looks. Coburn needs to set up for looks. Champagnie needs to set up for looks (even if he can create off of a dribble).

The Red Storm’s best offense on the evening may have been Posh Alexander attacking off the dribble.

Against good teams, one player trying to play bully ball is an ideal scenario — where one player may score 15-20, but no other player is a threat. Champagnie heated up in the second half, of course, and the team seemed to find some rhythm. But Champagnie took a well-deserved rest, and the Jayhawks started their 18-2 run, behind Ochai Agbaji and Braun.

Next

St. John’s takes on Fordham tomorrow evening. Joel Soriano gets to play against his former team, the Johnnies get more familiar surroundings, and less of a big game pressure — and have a chance to work on their cohesion. Upcoming games against Monmouth and Colgate will also be challenges that will help get the team into rhythm.