After a nearly three week break due to COVID-19 issues, the St. John’s Red Storm will be back in action Wednesday night! They will play host to a new look DePaul team led by first-year head coach Tony Stubblefield.
The last we saw of St. John’s was back on December 18th when they lost to Pittsburgh as a heavy favorite. The Johnnies have since had a slew of postponements.
St. John’s has had four conference games postponed, missing games against Seton Hall, Butler, Marquette, and Georgetown. The Big East announced on Tuesday new dates for both the Butler and Georgetown games. St. John’s will now host Butler on February 18th directly before traveling to Georgetown on February 21st. Contests against Seton Hall and Marquette have yet to be rescheduled.
Nevertheless, it will be refreshing to see the Red Storm take the floor on Wednesday. It is not entirely clear how many players will be available for St. John’s. Star players Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander are both expected to play. Hopefully, the Johnnies will be able to recapture some of their early-season momentum and start 2022 with a victory.
Who: St. John’s Red Storm (8-3, 0-0 Big East) vs DePaul Blue Demons (9-3, 0-2 Big East)
When: Wednesday, January 5th, 2022, 6:30 PM
Where: Carnesecca Arena, Queens, New York
Odds: St. John’s -5
Last Matchup: On February 20th of 2021, DePaul defeated St. John’s 88-83 in Queens. DePaul has won three straight games at Carnesecca Arena against St. John's.
DePaul has finally concluded the Dave Leitao experiment, potentially for the last time, although I will not officially rule it out. After six lackluster seasons in Chicago, Leitao’s second stint at DePaul has ended.
Enter longtime Oregon Ducks assistant coach Tony Stubblefield who begins his head coaching career with the Blue Demons. Stubblefield is off to a strong start at DePaul, entering Wednesday’s contest holding a 9-3 record with wins over Rutgers and Louisville. The gritty, never-quit Demons have been strong on defense, despite playing one of the shortest benches in the nation (338th in minutes played from the bench), and have not given up more than 70 points in any of their three losses.
On the offensive end, DePaul is a team that likes to get up and down. They play at a very fast pace and create a lot of their shots going downhill off the dribble and inside the arc. St. John’s will have to limit their transition opportunities and force them to run half-court offense. Both Providence and Butler were able to successfully slow DePaul down. This will be slightly more difficult for a St. John’s team that also plays at a fast pace. Maybe the best way to slow down DePaul is with effective ball pressure.
This DePaul team will bring with them to Queens an experienced team that is one of the tallest in the nation. Big men like Nick Ongenda and Yor Anei buoy the Blue Demons' interior defense. Both have contributed to DePaul being one of the best rim-protecting teams in the country, and both attack the offensive glass.
Ongenda is averaging slightly less than three blocked shots per game. Last time out against Providence he swatted seven shots, which is one shy of his season-best eight against Louisville. Standing at 6-foot-11 and 210 pounds, the Johnnies will have to match his physicality at the rim.
Joining him in the frontcourt is skilled forward Brandon Johnson. The fifth-year senior is averaging 11.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. He is not far removed from his best performance of the season in which he scored 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds at Butler.
Johnson and wing David Jones, who averages 16.1 points and 8.3 rebounds, are key scorers for the team. Jones is a driver who can hit tough jump shots; he scored 33 in the win over Louisville, but was held to three points against Providence. He joins Ongenda and Anei in attacking the offensive glass.
The player to watch on the Blue Demons is senior guard Javon Freeman-Liberty, the Big East’s leading scorer (over Julian Champagnie, barely). He is currently averaging 20.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game. He is the number one player St. John’s has to get in check if they are to win this game. Freeman-Liberty and Jones combine to force over three steals per game, as well.
Wing Philmon Gebrewhit is a slim three-point shooter who has been streaky from the wing. In six games since the beginning of December, he has scored in double figures only once.
DePaul’s biggest weakness is their inability to hit three-point shots. As a team, they are shooting a paltry 32%. This is welcome news for St. John’s who is one of the worst teams in the nation at defending the perimeter. But their size and physicality, again, can be tough to match.
Keys to Contest
Create Turnovers: KenPom lists St. John’s as the 25th best team in the country at creating turnovers. While DePaul is not prone to many turnovers each game, it is imperative the Johnnies disrupt the Blue Demons tempo by turning them over. Limiting DePaul to as few possessions as possible will be hard for a St. John’s team that likes to push the pace as well. This only heightens the importance of creating DePaul turnovers.
Neutralize DePaul Frontcourt: DePaul will not let St. John’s get easy looks inside. They are a very capable defensive unit inside the arc and specialize in defending the rim. The Red Storm gets a majority of their offense from inside the perimeter. The battle between both frontcourts will be a game within the game. Keeping DePaul’s frontcourt and specifically Nick Ongenda from taking control will be an important key to this game.
Cohesion: St. John’s has not played in nearly three weeks. They have also struggled to field a full team at practice. It is possible St. John’s will look disjointed for stretches of this game. To the extent that comes true will be crucial for determining which team comes out of this game triumphant.
DePaul has the advantage of not having their program on pause. The Blue Demons have already played two conference games and the Johnnies have played none. I worry about the effect this COVID pause will have on St. John’s.
That being said, St. John’s should have a response for DePaul’s strengths. I expect a high-scoring affair that will come down to the last few possessions. I expect St. John’s to eventually dispatch DePaul, 81-77.