Pregame: Season ticket holders noted that Posh Alexander had hit four or five long range jumpers in practice? Would this be the game his offensive game came out? They also noted that 7’0” Jack Nunge of Xavier was drilling 18-20 foot jumpers during warmups, mostly from the top of the key. A concern arose – Joel Soriano will probably be assigned to him and will have to leave the defensive position under the basket to guard Nunge. Who will protect the rim against the other capable members of the Musketeers and who will clean the defensive boards, a strength of the Red Storm this year? It was a legitimate concern.
First Half: Soriano set up in the high post on the first Red Storm possession and the Johnnies ran their offense off of him at the beginning of the game. After Nunge hit a three from the right wing, Soriano drove down the middle and was fouled. He hit both free throws. The second talented big man for the Musketeers, Zach Freemantle, hit a layup to give Xavier a 5-2 lead but Alexander hit a three from the left wing on a kick-out from a driving Andre Curbelo. The score was tied 5-5 less than two minutes into the game. The expectations and concerns of fans during the pregame were presenting themselves.
At the 15-minute mark of the first half Curbelo stole the ball from Colby Jones and whistled a long underhanded pass to David Jones for a layup and a 12-11 Red Storm lead. It was the Johnnies first lead of the game and turned out to be the team’s only lead.
Over the next three minutes a 16-0 run put the Musketeers in command. Alexander, who had started so well, missed a three, missed a layup and turned the ball over during the Xavier run. Substituting freely, Coach Anderson called time out when the run had reached 9-0 and tried to find a successful combination. O’Mar Stanley broke the run with a short jumper from the left of the paint. Then Dylan Addae-Wusu hit a three pointer. Shortly afterwards, Esahia Nyiwe entered and made a layup as the Johnnies fought back, down by ten, 29-19, at the midpoint of the half.
Over the next 10 minutes the teams traded baskets with Xavier taking an eleven-point lead into halftime, up 48-37.
Halftime: The statistics at the half only showed one clear discrepancy: Rebounding. The Musketeers had 22 rebounds (7 offensive) to the Johnnies 14 rebounds (3 offensive). In essence, Xavier had four more offensive opportunities, many of them being easy putbacks of rebounds taken under the basket.
The Johnnies leading scorer and rebounder, Joel Soriano, had a difficult first half, with four points and two rebounds. His counterpart on the Musketeers, Jack Nunge, registered 12 points and took down seven rebounds.
The shooting percentage was similar – 52.6% for Xavier and 50% for the Johnnies. Both teams had seven turnovers in the first half while the Johnnies blocked three shots to none for Xavier.
Second Half: In an attempt to get Soriano involved the Red Storm started the second half with Curbelo feeding him at the foul line. He then cut around Soriano drawing the Xavier defense to him. Soriano cut to the basket and received a nice feed from Curbelo laying the ball in. The lead was down to nine and Soriano was again contributing. But a well coached Xavier team simply went about feeding Nunge and Freemantle and both responded with baskets. With 15:23 to play the Musketeer’s lead was back up to 16.
The game went back and forth with Xavier maintaining a double digit lead. With eight minutes to play, after a Mathis layup, Xavier led by fifteen at 69-54. Three layups by three different Johnnies sandwiched around a Mathis three, all in a two minute period, found the Johnnies down by six in front of a loud, enthused crowd.
But Xavier adjusted and with three minutes to play, the rebounding concerns reemerged. On one sequence the defense pressured the Musketeers into a desperation jumper from the corner with one second remaining on the shot clock. It missed but Xavier took down the rebound and missed a layup. Again the Musketeers took the rebound. A second putback attempt was blocked by Soriano. Yet the Johnnies still had not gained possession until after a Soriano foul on a fourth putback attempt in this sequence.
The Johnnies had closed the 18-point deficit to six with 6:42 remaining. There was plenty of time to continue their comeback but Xavier regained its poise and hung on for a hard fought, five-point victory.
Rebounding: During the contest the Musketeers had taken down 48 rebounds to 36 for the Red Storm. Of these Xavier had 16 offensive rebounds to 12 for the Johnnies. The chief discrepancy was in the first half when Xavier built its lead. In essence, the board work in the second half was equal. When the team held its own on the boards, the Johnnies were outscoring the Musketeers 42 to 36. Sorianno who struggled well into the second half, recovered with 14 points and eight boards. Several baskets were made as he aggressively attacked the offensive boards. David Jones led the way for the Red Storm with 19 points (10 in the second half) and ten boards (6 in the second half).
St. John's has controlled the boards for most games this season. This game presented the challenge of competing when board domination was not present.
Helter Skelter Pace: Both teams were capable of playing at an uptempo pace. By game’s end the Musketeers had committed 15 turnovers to the Johnnies 13. Xavier hit 45.7 percent of its field goal attempts to 43 percent for the Johnnies with the Johnnies shooting better than the Musketeers from three point land.
So what does this all mean? The helter-skelter pace was, in essence, amenable to both teams. When the Johnnies were down by six with almost seven minutes to play Xavier composed itself and pulled the game out.
Good teams find ways to attack the press and, the conversations in the Xavier huddle during time outs indicated that their team had been adequately prepared to handle the Johnnies’ pressure.
Do the Johnnies have to make adjustments in their defensive scheme?
Whose Team is it?
At the beginning of the season Posh Alexander was the centerpiece of the team, setting the team’s identity. As the season wore on Joel Soriano took over as the prime focus, at least, in the game planning by opponents. Statistically speaking David Jones is presenting himself as the team’s primary offensive threat.
The current conclusion is that the team does not have a dominant leader. Alexander provides an example of energy, every second he is on the court. He needs to get his jumper back to take a more complete leadership role.
Joel Soriano appeared frustrated in the first half but came through during the team’s second half efforts to get back into the game. The coaching staff needs to clarify his role as the team enters the more challenging competition of the Big East.
David Jones has played well across the board and the staff has to develop a way for Soriano and himself to coexist even more successfully than they have. He is a one-two punch with Soriano, but the Soriano-Jones combo was outplayed by the big two of Xavier this evening.
Of course, it can be argued that the true identity of this team may not be focused on any one of these three players. Rather we have seen Addae-Wusu take the lead in a game as has Andre Curbelo. A.J. Storr has had his moments as a dominant force, particularly as a jump shooter that draws defenses out from packing the middle.
At the beginning of the season Coach Anderson stated that he has the most talented roster he has had since coming to St. John's. He needs to find a way to mesh these talents together, identify the player having the hot hand and mold the team’s game plan around the players having an especially good game.
Skilled players are on the roster. Finding a way for the team to consistently mesh together is the challenge. An away game at Seton Hall and a home game versus Marquette will provide challenges for this team. Scouting the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent will be paramount for a team with a divergence of skilled players.
In the past the team has had a go-to offense player – think Shamorie Ponds and then Julian Champagnie. Not so this year. The go-to player on the team may change game to game even half to half. The ability of the coaches and players to determine early in the game who the player or players are to lead the way to a win may determine the success of the team as the schedule becomes more challenging.