The calendar flips to December, and the St. John’s men’s basketball team begins the month to face old Big East rival West Virginia in their first true road game of the season. In their last game, St. John’s steamrolled Holy Cross by a score of 91-45 on Saturday night at Carnesecca Arena. Four Red Storm players scored in double-figures, including R.J. Luis, who was making his St. John’s debut after missing the first five games with a broken hand.
West Virginia enters tonight’s game with a 3-3 record, as they’ve struggled with a lack of depth brought on by injuries, suspensions, and waiver ineligibility. In their last game this past Sunday, they went down to the wire in a 62-58 win over Bellarmine, who are rated 226th in KenPom.
Who: St. John’s Red Storm vs. West Virginia Mountaineers (3-3)
When: Friday, December 1, 2023, 7:00 p.m.
Where: WVU Coliseum, Morgantown, WV
Opening Odds: St. John’s (+2.5), O/U at 145.5
Scouting the Mountaineers
This has been the season from hell for West Virginia. It’s difficult to keep track of the succession of unfortunate events that has plagued the Mountaineers during the offseason, but here’s the gist: legendary coach Bob Huggins has officially resigned after a June DUI arrest, Josh Eilert has stepped into the interim head coaching role, and a village’s amount of players have transferred out.
Adversity even followed them into the season. Georgetown transfer Akok Akok collapsed during an October exhibition game against George Mason and he has not been cleared to play since the medical scare. Arizona transfer Kerr Kriisa is serving a nine-game suspension after he admitted to accepting impermissible benefits while he was playing for the Wildcats. Montana State transfer RaeQuan Battle was denied his waiver for immediate eligibility by the NCAA, pushing the Mountaineers’ presumptive lead guard to the sideline.
This critical lack of depth has forced Josh Eilert to use as few as seven players in his rotation for games against Virginia and SMU. However, he’s been able to rely on two frontcourt transfers, both with varying levels of familiarity with St. John’s. Former Syracuse big man Jesse Edwards is a springy post player and a nightly double-double candidate. In his only previous matchup against St. John’s, Edwards put up 18 points and 8 rebounds in an overtime loss to the Red Storm in last season’s Empire Classic championship game.
17 points and 14 rebounds in a huge performance for big man Jesse Edwards. He also had 2 assists, 1 steal and 3 blocks. Great work around the paint, finishing well off post ups pic.twitter.com/8jjWbLcWBv— Eurohoops Scouting (@EHoopsScouting) November 27, 2023
His frontcourt partner was a member of the Red Storm for less than two months. Former Pitino pupil Quinn Slazinski quickly went down the country roads after the very late addition of Chris Ledlum pushed him out of a potential starting role for St. John’s. Now, he has emerged one of the top scoring options for the Mountaineers. Through six games, Slazinski leads the team in points per game (16.3), made three-pointers (14), and three-point percentage (37.8%).
Even though Edwards and Slazinski are scintillating, West Virginia’s offense has been nauseating. Their 43.7% effective field goal percentage is the worst among high-major teams and 330th in the country. They’ve been able to overcome their offensive deficiency by clamping down on the defensive end, as they only allow a 46.8% effective field goal percentage to opposing teams, which is good enough for 68th best in the country.
Chris Ledlum has been dealing with a stomach virus, according to Rick Pitino on Wednesday’s media availability. He will be active for Friday’s game, but he is still recovering and is not a guarantee to start.
Update, as of 1:47 p.m: R.J. Luis will miss at least two weeks with a shin injury. It’s unclear when he suffered the injury, but he will miss Friday night’s game.
UPDATE: Red Storm sophomore RJ Luis Jr. will miss a minimum of two weeks to allow shins to heal. Projected late December return to the lineup.— St. John's Men’s Basketball (@StJohnsBBall) December 1, 2023
Keys to the game
Always be defending - Considering West Virginia’s dearth of scoring, this could be a “get right” game for a St. John’s team that couldn’t stop a parked car in November. They did hold Holy Cross to 45 points (yay?), but they need to look like a Rick Pitino-coached unit and have a solid defensive night against a high-major team.
Cue on Quinn - Slazinski says there is no acrimony between him and St. John’s, but you know he is looking to prove to Rick Pitino what he was missing. Whoever matches up against Quinn will have to limit his shotmaking ability and force the Mountaineers to lean more on their less credible scoring options.
Ground the Flying Dutchman - Amsterdam native Jesse Edwards has already put on a good performance against Joel Soriano in his college career. Joel Soriano has not been an exceptional defender through six games, as he’s 64th out of 86 in adjusted defensive rating among high-major players who are 6-foot-10 or taller according to BartTorvik. Soriano needs to use his larger frame to seal out Edwards and prevent any putback or alley-oop opportunities.
I don’t expect West Virginia to win in a shootout-type game, and I’m assuming neither do they with their current personnel issues, so the Mountaineers will look to turn this into a gritty, low-scoring rock fight. This St. John’s team already has experience winning such a contest (see the North Texas game). Even if the Red Storm have a below average shooting night, I still think West Virginia’s critical offensive troubles are too much for the Mountaineers to overcome. St. John’s wins in a slug fest, 64-59.