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Takeaways: Alexander, Champagnie and Wheeler assert themselves as St. John’s defeats Butler

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Soriano, bigs continue improvement; unforced errors remain a concern.

Chris Hagan

St. John’s fans entered Carnesecca Arena for the February 18th game against the Butler Bulldogs pleased to see freshman, Rafael Pinzon, warming up with the team, apparently ready to play. Sidelined after the COVID pause, fans expressed optimism that he can be an asset down the stretch of the season. Pinzon was quite accurate from three-point range during warm up drills.

Fans felt positively about the recent zone defenses utilized by the Red Storm. Unlike the beginning of the year when the defense left gaps in the corners, corrections had been made and the Red Storm were challenging shots from out deep.

One fan issued a warning to me: “Butler has won a few games in a row and has an experienced group of players. Despite the losing record, they are not a bad team.”

When starting lineups were announced there were two graduate students and two seniors starting for Butler. The lone underclassman was freshman Jayden Taylor, who ultimately led the team in scoring with 19 points.

Alexander, Champagnie, Wheeler and Mathis look on from the bench.
Chris Hagan

First Half

The St. John’s starting lineup included grad student Aaron Wheeler, senior Montez Mathis, juniors Joel Soriano and Julian Champaigne and sophomore Posh Alexander. The Bulldogs had a slightly more experienced squad on the court at the games beginning.

Soriano won the opening tip. Assisted by Aaron Wheeler, Mathis opened the scoring with a layup 17 seconds into the game. Taylor hit a three putting Butler ahead but 16 seconds later a layup by Champagne put the Johnnies back in the lead. Champagne hit a three from the left wing to extend the lead to 7-3; Taylor matched him with his own three cutting the lead to one at 16:16 .

It looked like it would be a close contest and fans maintained optimism that the performance against Xavier would be repeated as the game progressed.

The Red Storm continued to push the ball upcourt, but sometimes were out of control. Wheeler dribbled the ball off his knee on a fast break and Mathis, on a three on two break was called for an offensive foul. But the ball was moving and the Bulldogs were back peddling.

Dylan Addae-Wusu and Esahia Nyiwe came in at the next break for Mathis and Soriano. The Bulldogs returned their starters to the court. The Johnnies plan of utilizing the entire team was taking place.

Nywie, Smith and Addae Wusu join the action
Chris Hagan

Another Taylor basket put Butler up by three at the 12:21 mark. The second teamers stepped up. Esahia Nyiwe hit two free throws and Stef Smith, pump faking the Bulldog defender out of position, hit a 15-footer from the left corner to put the Red Storm ahead by one.

At the seven minute mark, Myles Tate hit a three and the Bulldogs took the lead, 20-19. It would be Butler’s last lead of the game.

A Soriano dunk and a deep three from the right wing by Wheeler put the Johnnies up by four at 24-20. Alexander then drove hard down the right of the lane. As the Bulldog defense shifted to guard him, he made a nice pass to an open Soriano for his second dunk in just over a minute put the Johnnies up by six. The Johnnies were rolling.

Chris Hagan

With just over four minutes to play Alexander took a defensive rebound and drove hard down the court on the left. Just past the foul line, he found a streaking Mathis down the right and hit him with a 20-foot line drive pass. Mathis corralled it and continued for a layup and a 30-23 St. John’s lead.

After another Wheeler three a television timeout gave the Bulldogs a respite. It didn’t seem to help. A Mathis assist to Alexander led to a layup and a foul. Alexander converted and the score was 36-23. It was a 10-point St. John’s run over two and a half minutes.

Posh Alexander, ready for defense.
Chris Hagan

The fans were energized. Near the end of the half a “defense … defense” chant was replaced by a “Let’s Go Johnnies” chant. The defense, also energized, held the Bulldogs without a shot attempt as the half was ending. A Champagnie steal and feed to Alexander resulted in a three point attempt from just inside halfcourt by Alexander which banked in as the half ended. St. John’s led 46-30 at the end of the half.

St. John’s converted 64% of its field goal attempts including 6 of 11 from three point distance. The Johnnies assisted on 13 of 18 made field goals. Seven of those assists were by Alexander. Alexander had nine points and joined Wheeler with the second most points for the Red Storm. Champagnie led the way with 14 points and seemed to be regaining his touch from out deep.

The Johnnies were outrebounding Butler by 13 to 7. They had six steals to two for Butler and blocked three shots to none for the Bulldogs.

Given this performance it was unexpected to find that both teams would have eight turnovers. Butler turnovers were mostly caused by tight Red Storm defense. Johnnies’ turnovers were mostly caused by sloppy plays by the Red Storm offense.

Aaron Wheeler works around two Butler players
Chris Hagan

Second Half: Fans, remembering games early in the season when the Red Storm did not always come out focused in the second half, were confident but concerned as the half began.

Bryce Nze hit a layup 25 seconds into the half cutting the deficit to 14; 20 seconds later, Champagnie pump faked and then went up for a jumper. He was fouled by Taylor and hit his two foul shots.

Three minutes into the half Posh Alexander brought the ball up. He passed the ball to Wheeler on the right wing, who quickly fed Soriano under the basket. Soriano had been successful shooting when the ball was in deep but this time he found an open Mathis, who, in turn saw an open Champagnie under the basket for a layup and a 52-35 lead. In a period of 15 seconds all five Johnnies on the floor had touched the ball with four passes and a Champagnie layup. Fans were smiling.

The remainder of the half found Champagnie regaining his touch and hitting four of nine from three-point land on the way to a 31 point effort. St. John’s came away with a 91-57 victory.

Champagnie launches from three
Chris Hagan

Three Takeaways

Big Three: Champagnie, Alexander, Wheeler

At the beginning of the season the question on everyone’s mind was who will step up to assist Champagnie and Alexander and provide a reliable scoring punch. Many were suggesting that it would be one of the guards, perhaps Montez Mathis, Stef Smith or Tareq Coburn. Each of these three guards has shown flashes of offensive support, but it has been Aaron Wheeler who has done so consistently.

Over the past 10 games Wheeler has averaged 14.8 points per game. Over the same 10 game stretch he has hit 41 percent of his threes. In the past four games Wheeler’s production has risen to 17.7 per game, while hitting 52 percent of his threes. One can say that Wheeler is an offensive threat that opponents will have to strategize to defend.

Wheeler gets a shot off over outstretched Butler player
Chris Hagan

Posh Alexander is averaging 13.4 points per game. He averages 6 assists per game and 2.7 steals per game. Alexander’s focus on pushing the pace and distributing the ball makes all of his teammates better. Prior to his ankle injury Alexander had developed a reliable pull up jumper from 12 to 15 feet away, mostly shot from around or in the paint. His success in hitting this shot has led to defenses having to plan for it.

Julian Champagnie, despite a four game stretch of only scoring in single digits, still averages 17.2 for the past ten games. During the stretch of poor shooting Champagne did other things to assist the Johnnies – rebounding, assists, and steals.

The good news is that in the past four games Champagne is averaging 21 points per game, having developed a floater with a soft touch off the backboard when attacking the rim from the corners. His three point shooting, so devastating at the beginning of the season, has come back a bit in the last two games, hitting six of 16 attempts.

Champagnie poses for the crowd
Chris Hagan

With a triumvirate of players performing at this high level coupled with the Johnnies ability to push the ball up court, opponents’ defensive strategies will be challenged. In the past four games each of the three has stepped up in one of the four games to lead the team forward.

When the tournament arrives leaders must emerge. The Johnnies have not one but three capable of doing so.

The upbeat system

After the Butler game Coach Anderson stated, “They understand defensively what we are trying to do… It’s coming together at the right time. It’s a process. You just don’t throw a bunch of guys together and it all starts happening.”

There is truth in this statement. At the beginning of the year when the Red Storm went into a zone they bottled up underneath but left open looks for opponents, particularly in the corners.

That defense resulted in teams with good backcourts not only escaping the pressure but attacking the Johnnies with, most often, a three on two break. Once again, the Johnnies have found a way to mostly counter such circumstances. The coaching staff and the team deserves congratulations for such improvement.

The benefits of a pressure defense do not always reveal themselves in statistics. How many possessions did opponents find their game plans out of sync? How many times in the past did opposing players attack the basket and find themselves dribbling underneath the basket trying to escape Red Storm double teams.

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However, the upbeat system has produced some chaotic offensive play. One statistic does speak to this issue. In the Butler game St. John’s had 12 steals to Butler’s seven. St Johns had seven blocks to Butler’s zero blocks. Yet St. John’s had more turnovers (16) to Butler’s 14. How could this be?

St Johns, who registered 23 assists on 35 baskets also, due mostly to over aggressiveness, had many unforced turnovers. Unforced turnovers may be expected on occasion when pushing the ball as the Red Storm does. However, the fact that there were 16 turnovers by the Johnnies and seven steals, no blocks by Butler would suggest nine of the turnovers were unforced.

Nine unforced turnovers may not mean a lot when the team wins by 34 points. But when the game is close, ever such turnover means a lot.

Big men enough?

O’Mar Stanley at the rim
Chris Hagan

With tournament time approaching the performance of the Johnnies “Big Men” becomes increasingly important. With all of the scorers on the team, the front court players play an important role. They take away the layups by opponents. They rebound. Lastly, they score enough under the basket to make opponent’s defenses take notice.

Joel Soriano’s game has improved, particularly on defense. Averaging 2.4 blocks per game with 6.6 rebounds and 6.7 points per gam, Soriano is fulfilling some of Johnnies needs from their frontcourt players. Soriano earlier in the year was often limited in playing time due to getting into foul trouble. This has been less of a problem recently.

Esahia Nyiwe has been averaging 11.6 minutes of playing time per game over the last ten games. While he scores infrequently, Nyiwe has pulled down three rebounds a game and is active on defense. His time on the court gives Soriano breaks.

Freahman O’Mar Stanley brings energy and toughness to the Johnnies frontline. He has averaged 7.5 minutes of playing time. Stanley has had his moments on the offensive end, taking down and putting in offensive rebounds. He averages 2.5 points per game. He also has been taking down 1.7 rebounds per game.

Between the three the Johnnies “Big Men” are taking down 11.3 rebounds per game and scoring about 10 points per game.

It is just enough to supplement the others on the team and to provide hope for a strong finish to the season.

Outlook

In the past 10 games the Johnnies are 5-5. Four of the five losses were to teams with winning records in the league and the average loss in the five games was by 5.6 points.

In the five games won the Johnnies outscored their opponents by 16 points. Four of the wins were on the opponent’s home court.

So, what will come of the following four games in the regular season?

The most lopsided loss of the season for the Johnnies this year was at Creighton on January 19th. It was by 23 points. That was 11 games ago.

The Johnnies next game is on Wednesday, a home game against Creighton. Home fans are energized after impressive victories. The defense is not giving up so many open shots as earlier in the year. So, can the Johnnies make up the 23 points?

Close games have rarely gone the Johnnies way this season. The Johnnies, if they want to make a run at the end of the year, need to, as Julian Champagnie shared after the recent Connecticut loss, improve. Every member of the team has to improve. And the improvement can start with reducing unforced turnovers.