With a large crowd including over a thousand students filling seats behind both baskets, the colors red and white stood out loud and clearly before the Gavitt Games matchup between the Johnnies and the Michigan Wolverines.
Fans spoke positively of the Red Storm’s chances for the game against the Michigan Wolverines citing the 16-point win over a “good” Stony Brook team on November 7, 2023 as their reason for high expectations.
The Garden’s excitement intensified when the St. John’s Red Storm Battalion marched onto the court. Fans stood and cheered. A short time later the introduction of players was met with a pyrotechnics display that added energy to the crowd’s expectations.
The debut of the “new” Red Storm did not go as anticipated.
This year’s Red Storm team was billed as one that would defend the three and hit a fair percentage of their own attempts. Neither took place in this game.
Twelve seconds into the game, a wide-open Nimari Burnett hit a three from the right corner for an early three-to-nothing Michigan lead. The Wolverines were on their way to hitting 42 percent of their threes led by Burnette and the game’s high scorer, Dug McDaniel.
The Red Storm had some success shooting in the first six minutes of the game and a three by Daniss Jenkins put the Johnnies in front by the score of 18 to 13. Twenty-four seconds later, a steal by Glenn Taylor was met with a loud cheer from the crowd.
The Johnnies appeared on their way but…
Taylor missed a three and six seconds later Burnette buried a three, assisted by McDaniel. The Johnnies lead was suddenly two.
The game remained close for the next seven minutes. A Joel Soriano layup at the 6:39 mark put the Johnnies ahead by one. Soriano was fouled but missed a free throw which could have widened the lead. Chris Ledlum took down the rebound and was fouled. Hitting one of two free throws, the Red Storm was up by two. It would be their last lead.
A Michigan spurt at the end of the half found the Johnnies down by 10, 48-38.
Fans analyzing the first half came to the following conclusions:
- The Johnnies were missing too many layups, but Michigan should be given credit for their defense which contested almost all layups.
- The Wolverines seemed a step quicker than the Red Storm.
- Chris Ledlum seemed to be pressing which led to him driving and forcing unsuccessful shots at the rim. In the half he made one shot, a three-pointer, out of five.
- Many times there was a lack of ball movement on the offense with many plays going one-on-one with the only pass being made when drives were stopped.
The outcome in the first half found Michigan shooting at a 56 percent clip while the Johnnies made but 34 percent of their field goal attempts.
All fans agreed that the first five minutes of the second half would make or break the Johnnies.
The Johnnies, still down by ten, and the fanbase was anxious and quiet. Despite a pressure defense to open the second half, the Johnnie’s efforts had not dented the halftime lead.
Over the next seven minutes only Joel Soriano scored on two putbacks plus making the foul shot. Despite his efforts, ineffective support from teammates resulted in an increase in the Wolverine lead to 20.
When the Red Storm tried to press, the Wolverine guards broke through relatively easily. Coach Pitino attempted a big man substitution with Drissa Traore and Zuby Ejofor having the most success, each scoring seven points and taking down 10 rebounds between them.
The Red Storm Dance team’s scintillating performance at the seven minute to play mark brought an enthusiastic response from the crowd waiting for something to cheer. Perhaps empowered the crowd did stay around to see the Johnnies reserves outplay the Wolverine reserves, reducing the Wolverines’ 26-point lead to 16 at game’s end.
Takeaway One: Joel Soriano
Despite the final score Joel Soriano, stood tall amidst his teammates tepid response to the Wolverine’s aggressiveness. Shooting six for eight and taking down nine rebounds while playing about 25 minutes, Soriano competed, scoring most of his points on put-backs of missed Johnnie shots. He also demonstrated an ability to score away from the basket as he hit a 12-footer near the end of the first half.
Takeaway Two: The Johnnies pressure defense was ineffective.
Coach Pitino called for pressure defense at various moments in the game. With the exception of the last few minutes of the game, when reserves were competing, the defense was ineffective. The Wolverines broke through relatively easily and their success, on several occasions, led to uncontested layups.
The question needs to be asked and answered – is this team suited for applying full-court defensive pressure? Or were the Michigan guards simply that good?
Takeaway Three: Ball movement?
How many times were there more than two quick passes leading to a score?
In this game, not very often.
In pre-season practices ball movement was evident. The Red Storm successfully fed Soriano at the high post and he turned towards the basket and made a pass to an open teammate. Against Michigan, Soriano and Ejiofor did set some high screens, but passes into the high post for the purpose of hitting teammates either on the wings or on backdoor cuts were rare.
Soriano was effective in the low post but opening the court up with him in the high post might be a way to open up driving lanes for the backcourt players.
It was a disappointing loss for the Red Storm, particularly in front of a large crowd. The Johnnies need to be more consistent when shooting threes. They made four in the first four minutes of play and four in the last five minutes. In the intervening 31 minutes they went one for ten. The team appropriately cut back on long-range shooting when they lost their touch. Running some plays with three or more touches may open up lanes for drives and even create some more wide-open threes.
The next opponent, North Texas, is known to slow down the pace in games. This may be a real test for the Johnnies.
The Johnnies were a number two seed (out of eight teams) in the upcoming Charleston Tournament. Are they overrated? The team needs at least two wins in the tournament to establish momentum for the rest of the season.