The last game was a bit dispiriting. Last week, St. John’s suffered a loss to Villanova where a stretch of 15 minutes saw the Red Storm revert to bad habits, individual offensive play, and hang their heads a bit. It raised questions about the teeter-totter this St. John’s team is on — fast and exciting, but badly lacking shooting.
But this challenge may be a greater one, as a balanced Xavier team comes to town to pour salt in the recent wounds
The Wednesday game is All-Access, giving an opportunity for the fans to see inside the huddles and behind the scenes for both teams, in the locker rooms and on the sidelines. It’s a great idea! But it is a tough, tough game to have this kind of scrutiny on, with the students home for the holiday break.
Can St. John’s conjure up some late night magic against Xavier?
Who: St. John’s Red Storm (11-2, 1-1 Big East) at #22/ #25 Xavier Musketeers (10-3, 2-0 Big East)
When: Wednesday, December 28, 2022, 9:00 PM
Where: Carnesecca Arena, Queens, NY
Odds: Xavier, -1.5
History: St. John’s is 6-14 against Xavier in their shared history, which includes a current three-game winning streak by the Red Storm that comes after a 12-game Xavier winning streak.
The Musketeers have turned over a new leaf (a new sheath? a new barrel?) returning Sean Miller, former Pittsburgh player and assistant, to the head coaching position. Last year’s team was good, winning the NIT, but the previous coach did not make an NCAA Tournament in four years, and that will not stand for Xavier.
Xavier returns most of last year’s team, and they play fast. Like last year’s team, the Musketeer defense seems to have gaps, though they have played a hard schedule — Duke, Indiana, and Gonzaga are their losses, with wins against Florida, West Virginia, and Cincinnati.
This year’s team is raining threes — likely due to personnel — and packs the paint to encourage opponents to take threes under pressure, perhaps vestiges of the Pack Line system Miller has used for years. Xavier has the second-highest assist to field goal ratio in the country, as well.
Watch for the interplay between the talented big men, Jack Nunge (who is 7’0”) and Zach Freemantle (6’9”). Both are credible outside shooting threats, very good defensive rebounders, and shot blockers, but make solid decisions and score inside. They will show a high-low look that could be particularly difficult for St. John’s to slow down. The two lead the way as Xavier gets to the line at a strong rate. The bigs are backed up by Jerome Hunter, a 6’8” player who has managed to see four fouls in nine minutes against Georgetown and Montana.
Working often through the middle, the Musketeers have enjoyed a strong year from guard Souley Boum, who has been shooting nearly 50% from beyond the arc, from multiple spots. Boum, a grad transfer from UTEP, and Colby Jones, the hard-working wing, combine to propel the top assist percentage. Both are threats to shoot but make good passes. Boum has led the Musketeers in free throw attempts, while Jones has the height to block and bother shots.
Guard Adam Kunkel is a decent though inconsistent shooter. Freshman Desmond Claude is highly rated but has struggled with his shot so far this season. Forward Deionte Miles, has been sitting with an injury, though he is not often used. Kam Craft and KyKy Tandy both remained on the bench in the Musketeers’ last game.
Scouting St. John’s
St. John’s is built with a number of quick and exciting athletes without a strong history of shooting. Clearly, the plan is to either improve the defense, or to at least force steals and chaos, and perhaps get to the free throw line offensively.
Currently, the rate of turnovers forced is 89th in the country. The team is shooting 30.6% on three-pointers, rarely gets to the line, and often depends on individual scorers to get shots up.
Joel Soriano has been a bright spot, contributing double-doubles and helping the Johnnies on both ends of the floor by rebounding.
But the Red Storm have to figure out how to make two point guards work, how to get Posh Alexander on track as the devastating player he was, and where to find shooters who can apply defensive pressure the way Mike Anderson does on defense.
Keys to the Game
Disrupt! Destroy! The Red Storm need to create deflections and muck up the flow of the Xavier offense,
Make threes. Really, it’s about shooting. Posh Alexander, Andre Curbelo and David Jones have all struggled with their shots. They bring offensive energy to the table, but a team has to execute their shots. Will AJ Storr and Rafael Pinzon get a chance to spread the Johnnies’ offensive wings?
Compete the glass. It will be hard to get second shot opportunities, but that’s what players like David Jones and Soriano have excelled at on the floor this year. Those second-shot chances, plus free throws, can make the Red Storm a very hard team to guard,
Xavier wins 77-73.