After another poor first half and decent second half on Tuesday night against CCSU, St. John’s will play their first Power 6 opponent of the season when they host the Nebraska Cornhuskers tonight. The game is part of the seventh edition of the Gavitt Games, the annual eight game series played between the Big East and Big Ten.
After only carrying a two-point lead into the half against Lafayette, the Johnnies continued their first half struggles against Central Connecticut State, trading leads with the Blue Devils throughout the half and only carrying a four-point lead into the break. They were able to break away early in the second and finish with a 17-point win, but the Red Storm still did not play up to par in a game they entered as 30.5 point favorites.
Something St. John’s continued to do well against CCSU was score the ball, finishing the game with 91 points on 55.1% from the field and 36.4% from deep. Freshman AJ Storr contributed a breakout performance in his 17 minutes off the bench, scoring 16 points and going 4-5 from three point range.
Who: St. John’s Red Storm (3-0) vs Nebraska Cornhuskers (2-0)
When: Thursday, November 17, 6:30 PM
Where: Carnesecca Arena, Queens, New York
Odds: St. John’s -10.5
History: The Red Storm and Cornhuskers have only played once, also in a Gavitt Games matchup at Carnesecca Arena on November 16, 2017. The Johnnies took the game 79-56.
Nebraska is projected to be bottom of the pack in the Big 10 this year, finishing 14th out of 14 teams in the conference’s preseason media poll. They are coached by former NBA player and head coach Fred Hoiberg, who is in his fourth season with the program. Last season the Cornhuskers finished 10-22 and were tied for last in the Big 10.
Nebraska has won both of their games to start the season at home against Maine and Omaha, both by double digit margins. They currently have a KenPom ranking of 110th out of 363 DI teams, which puts them at 70th of the 76 Power 6 teams, while the Johnnies currently sit at 41st.
Nebraska has a lot of fresh faces this season, with only four returning players and one returning starter, 6-9 senior forward Derrick Walker, who has missed the Cornhuskers’ first two games due to injury and is questionable for tonight’s matchup. When healthy, Walker provides Nebraska with some solid size, as last season he started all 32 games and averaged 9.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per contest.
This season Nebraska has been led in scoring by 6-7 senior guard Sam Griesel, a transfer who played four seasons at North Dakota State and has averaged 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists in his first two contests as a Cornhusker.
Griesel is joined in the starting backcourt by 6-5 sophomore guard CJ Wilcher, who was the sixth man for the team last season and has some Big East experience, playing 15 games for Xavier in 2020-21. Wilcher has done well in his expanded role so far this season, averaging 14 points per contest on 50% from the field and 41.7% from deep.
Another starting guard for Nebraska is 6-4 senior Emmanuel Bandoumel, a transfer who played his first three seasons at SMU. Bandoumel has also gotten off to a solid start, posting averages of 12 points, 7 boards, and 3 assists so far this season.
In Nebraska’s frontcourt, they have started a couple of transfers in the absence of Derrick Walker — 6-6 junior forward Juwan Gary and 6-11 sophomore forward Blaise Keita. Gary played the last two seasons at Alabama, where he was a solid role player both years. This season, he has averaged 7 points and 6 rebounds for Nebraska, going 5-17 from the field. Keita played his last couple seasons at JUCO program Coffeyville CC, where he was a top JUCO recruit and won a NJCAA National Title. So far with the Cornhuskers, he’s averaging 5.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per contest.
Off the bench, the Cornhuskers receive some solid scoring from Keisei Tominaga, a 6-2 junior guard in his second season with the team. Tominaga was a solid contributor in a mixture of starts and bench appearances last season, and so far this year is averaging 9.5 points off the bench.
He is joined off the bench by 6-6 redshirt freshman wing Denim Dawson, who scored eight points in Nebraska’s win over Omaha. 6-3 freshman guard Jemarques Lawrence played 14 minutes off the bench against Omaha, contributing one point.
Nebraska’s size off the bench comes from 6-10 forward Wilhelm Breidenbach, a sophomore in his second season with the team. Breidenbach was a solid big off the bench last season in the 10 games he played in before getting hurt, and this season has contributed well with 4.5 points and 5.0 boards per game.
Keys to the Game
Tighten up defensively. The Johnnies have not looked as dominant as expected in their past couple of contests, and a lot of this has to do with their first half defense. They need to tighten up their defense, especially against the first team they will be playing that has competent offensive threats.
Go on runs early. An issue the Red Storm had from last season is trading baskets. This is something that will work for wins early in the season, but will stop working as their competition gets better and can stop the Johnnies’ scorers. They need to start putting together more runs, especially early in the game, to build leads and stack wins.
Play to win. Even though the Cornhuskers are better than the Red Storm’s first three opponents, St. John’s is a much better team than Nebraska, and they need to showcase that with an aggressive and dominant “play to win, not play to not lose” performance tonight.
St. John’s has their best performance of the year and wins 85-64.