After shooting four for 15 on three-point attempts in a three-point loss to Providence on January 7, the Johnnies decided to address this matter.
One half hour before the game a quartet of Posh Alexander, David Jones, Andre Curbelo and Dylan Addae-Wusu were seen practicing threes around the horn shooting from the left corner, the left wing, the top of the key, the right wing and the right corner. Fed by student assistants, each Johnnie continued shooting in each position until he made two.
Overall, it was a successful drill with Alexander hitting well over 50% of his threes. Would the drill bear fruit in the upcoming game against the Butler Bulldogs?
“We need a winning streak to bring the fans back” was a comment made by a season ticket holder. Fans were wandering into Carnesecca Arena late and, at the start of the game, there were many empty seats. The student section behind the two baskets, usually filled, was only three-quarters filled. After a competitive outing against Providence three days ago, the same fan expressed confidence that today would bring an end to the drought.
Starting the game for the Johnnies were Alexander, Addae-Wusu, Joel Soriano, O’Mar Stanley and A.J. Storr. Pregame opinions had suggested that 6’11” Manny Bates of Butler could make Joel Soriano of St. John’s work for his points. But it did not take long for Soriano to establish that he would continue his successful season.
After Alexander drove into the paint and hit Storr for a layup and a 2-0 lead, it was Soriano’s turn.
Playing the high post in the Johnnies offensive set, Soriano found Butler playing off him and launched a 16-footer that hit nothing but the net. After a three by Butler’s Eric Hunter, Soriano once again was fed, again in the high post. Pump faking a shot, he drew Butler defenders to him and, in response, aggressively put the ball on the floor driving for a layup and a 6-3 Johnnies lead.
For the first six and a half minutes it was all the Soriano and Storr show with Soriano hitting four out of four for eight points and Storr adding a three, off an Alexander feed. BUt the defense allowed the Bulldogs to keep pace, and the score was tied, 13-13.
After an official TV timeout at the 13:21 mark with the score still tied, the Red Storm added Andre Curbelo and David Jones to the lineup along with Soriano, Storr and Alexander. Alexander pump faked his defender and drove past him for a layup and a 17-15 Johnnies lead. The Johnnies would never relinquish it.
Rafael Pinzon and Kolby King entered the game. Pinzon drove into the paint and found a wide-open King in the left corner. King obliged by hitting a three and the Johnnies were up 24-18. Thirty seconds later Pinzon, assisted by Curbelo, hit a 16-foot jumper for a 26-18 lead.
It did not matter if it was starters or bench players in, the Johnnies were in control of the game.
As the half wound down, Curbelo, rolling on the ground, stole the ball from Hunter, fed Addae-Wusu who dunked the ball for a 39-29 lead.
With a 39-29 lead at the half, the Red Storm were converting on 53% of their shots with Soriano leading the way with 14 points on 7/8 shooting. Butler, despite trying to deny him the ball, was simply no match for him. He scored from in close and on 10 to 15-foot jumpers.
On the defensive side, the Johnnies held the Bulldogs to 39% shooting. The Red Storm outrebounded the Bulldogs 17 to 11; Butler had but two offensive rebounds in the half. Turnovers were even at eight as the Red Storm occasionally made careless passes or lost the ball to a Butler double team.
Asking fans a question, “Who impressed you the most on the Red Storm in addition to Soriano?” there was a difference of opinion. One fan stated A.J. Storr, who scored seven points in the half, demonstrating his versatility on offense as he hit a three and added driving baskets.
A second fan summarized that Curbelo had a “good half” as, when he entered the game, the Johnnies offense had been stagnant. With Curbelo bringing the ball up, the game opened up and most of his teammates became more engaged in the offensive sets. As a result, the ball moved quicker and most everyone shared in the scoring.
Consistency from half to half had been a challenge for the Johnnies during the recent losing streak — but not today. Despite the efforts of Chuck Harris, who led the Bulldogs with 17 points, the Johnnies lead reached 12 on another Storr three-pointer with 15:47 to play. Unlike so many previous games, there would be no run by an opponent at the beginning of the second half.
With the team less dependent on Soriano to score, Pinzon began hitting jumpers totaling eight points in the half. Curbelo added nine second half points for a game total of 11 points and six assists. He had four steals in the game.
Posh Alexander had a game total of nine points, two assists and six steals as the Johnnies walked off the court with a 77 to 61 victory.
A.J. Storr and Rafael Pinzon stepping up
Led by Joel Soriano’s 20 points, the Johnnies also had A.J. Storr tallying 12 points on four for seven shooting (two of three from out deep) and Raphael Pinzon with 10 points also on four of seven shooting (two of five from three-point land), in the absence of Montez Mathis, out with a toe injury.
Storr, a freshman, has been brought along gradually. Now starting the past two games, he appears to be coming into his own with more than the three-point shooting which was his major contribution to the team in the past. On one play Storr took a long pass on the run and laid it in with a Bulldog defender contesting. It was an example of athleticism that predicts more of the same. With two challenging road games coming up, a maturing Storr may be a difference maker if he continues his improvement.
Though a sophomore, Rafael Pinzon has missed several games each year due to injury. Against Butler, Pinzon displayed a well-rounded game. In his 23 minutes of play, he not only scored 10 points but also had an assist and inserted himself into the flow of the game as the Johnnies pulled away from the Bulldogs in the middle of the first half.
Can these two continue their recent improvement? If so, they may be able to provide some consistent outside shooting for the team.
Yes, the defense held the Bulldogs to 61 points and created 22 turnovers, well over the average turnovers by a Butler team in their previous games. This was an excellent effort.
But there remains a concern about the Red Storm turnovers, when having the ball. As has been the case in some games, the team sometimes aggressively attacks when they have, at best, a small advantage on offense. Most Red Storm turnovers are caused by careless passing. As the season wears on these errors should lessen.
The team could benefit by slowing the game down, unless the fast break is clearly advantageous. If the younger players continue to mature, the team can score in the half-court and this skill needs to be enhanced.
Addae-Wusu, who had been playing well as of late, struggled with four turnovers and no assists. Three other Johnnies had three turnovers apiece so the carelessness was widespread.
After Coach Anderson called timeout at the 6:51 mark of the second half the team began to slow the pace down and committed but one turnover the rest of the game.
Dropping back on defense
As the season has worn on the Johnnies have not applied full court pressure after made baskets as often as the team did earlier in the season.
Against Butler, dropping back most of the time allowed the team to clearly identify their defensive responsibilities. Coach Anderson did call for full-court pressure at times, and it was enough to keep Butler off balance. Despite this more conservative approach the Johnnies still turned Butler over 22 times. Pressure, when beginning just after the Bulldogs passed over the midcourt line, was effective.
This approach contributed to the Johnnies taking down 32 rebounds to 27 for the Bulldogs. Winning the rebounding battle is important for the Johnnies, particularly on the defensive boards. The Johnnies have struggled against teams who have successfully attacked the offensive boards and gained frequent second chances after misses.
Mixing defensive schemes, including occasionally pressuring full court, appears to be a successful formula.
As a team the Johnnies hit on 44%of their three-point attempts against Butler, a vast improvement from their efforts against Providence.
The team hit 9/11 free throw attempts, an 82% rate. Prior to the game, the team was converting at a 69%.
Does this mean there is shooting improvement? Not necessarily. Being ahead comfortably from the middle of the first half onward takes pressure off the team and, thus, can contribute to more successful shooting outcomes, particularly from the free throw line.
Nevertheless, improved shooting is a must for this team to be successful. The early shooting drills prior to the Butler game clearly demonstrate that the team understands this.
So, there are two difficult road games coming up for a team very much in need of a winning streak. In the next game at Connecticut, Joel Soriano will face his most challenging opponent in center Adama Sanogo, who was an All-Big East frontcourt player last year. Can Soriano continue to hit his mid-range jumper? It may draw Sanogo away from the boards and impact the game’s outcome.
Can someone be counted on to hit mid-range and three-point jumpers?
Most importantly, to be successful the Johnnies need to cut down on their turnovers. Against good teams like Connecticut and Creighton, the Red Storm must minimize turnovers by making wise decisions on offense.
The Johnnies have had periods of doing well in all Big East games. The almost victory at Providence shows they can compete. Will they? There is renewed hope.