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Three Takeaways: St. John’s beats Xavier, 81-66

Tim Ferguson provides his perspective, takeaways, and thoughts on Wednesday night’s big win over Xavier

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at St. John Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports

Pregame

Carnesecca Arena found a long line of Johnnies fans waiting for the Arena’s doors to open. The early crowd was on its way to a sell-out and fans were expressing a cautious optimism about the upcoming game. Was the defense ready to step up? Fans were wondering if Nahiem Alleyne, acknowledged to be the team’s best perimeter defender, would get the start. Would he and his teammates be able to slow down the two skilled Xavier guards, particularly leading scorer Quincy Olivari? One fan carefully watching the pregame practice of the Musketeers shared, “Boy, these guys can shoot from long range.”

Fans debated the use of full-court pressure by the Johnnies. The idea that the purpose was not to create a turnover but to disrupt the opponent’s rhythm on offense was the conclusion. Fans were not focusing on the recent performance against Fordham but on the disappointing loss to Boston College. They shared their opinion that the team will benefit greatly when sophomore forward R.J. Luis is back in the lineup.

First Half

The Johnnies made an early statement and Daniss Jenkins led the way. After hitting a jumper from the right of the paint 15 seconds into the game, he followed with a three after a Joel Soriano offensive rebound and kick out to send the Johnnies off to a 5-0 start in the first minute of play.

A Chris Ledlum steal then a forwarding pass to Jenkins found Glenn Taylor open on the left wing for a three and the fan base was on its feet celebrating an 8-0 start at the 18:19 mark of the game. The chant ‘defense … defense” followed to be repeated several times as the game progressed.

The defense responded with tight man-to-man coverage. The result was the Musketeers began forcing long jumpers late in the 30-second shot clock. The only weakness for the Johnnies was the corralling of rebounds on missed shots. Many of the offensive rebounds by the Musketeers were long rebounds from three-point attempts missed. By the 15:08 mark of the half the Johnnies led 12 to 5 with Xavier only converting 22 percent of their shots.

Behind guard Desmond Claude, who would score 21 points in the contest, Xavier fought their way back to get within two points at 17-15 with twelve minutes left in the half, but they never caught up. Ledlum was unstoppable in the first half, attacking the basket, drawing fouls, and converting free throws. Also impressive was the play of Nahiem Alleyne. Known for his on-ball defense and long-range shooting, Alleyne demonstrated an ability to attack the rim and convert on short-range jumpers. At halftime, the Red Storm went into the locker room after a perfectly timed pull-up jumper by Jordan Dingle with a 44-36 lead.

The Johnnies accomplished this lead with team captain’ Joel Soriano only scoring four points, though he did take down six rebounds and was credited with three assists.

Half Time

The fan reaction during the half was simple. “We hit our threes and we had very few turnovers.” Statistics at the half supported this conclusion. The Johnnies nailed 45% of their threes and had only five turnovers. In comparison, Xavier shot 30 percent from out deep and had eight turnovers. The Johnnies had three steals and blocked two shots while Xavier had one steal and no blocks. The only statistic the Musketeers did better in was the rebound battle which Xavier won 19 to 15. But this could be explained by many rushed, long-range shots by the Musketeers resulting in long rebounds off their misses.

Also to be noted is the fact that Alleyne’s defensive assignment was to control Musketeer leading scorer Quincy Olivari, who entered Wednesday night averaging 17 points a game. At the end of the first half, Olivari had four points hitting two out of six field goal attempts, well below his season average.

Second Half

The Johnnies were ready and ready meant one thing: get Soriano into the game as a scorer. Xavier’s adjustments were also apparent: attack the basket with its guards.

After a Ledlum three from the right corner stretched the lead to eleven, 47 to 36, Soriano entered the scoring column with a jumper from the top of the key. The lead was thirteen, 49 to 36. The Red Storm defense remained stifling and Xavier did not score for the first three and a half minutes of the second half. Soriano was asserting himself on defense with not only two blocked shots in the first three minutes of the half but several times his rim defense caused the Musketeers to alter and miss driving layup attempts.

At the 12-minute mark of the half the Red Storm had all starters on the bench giving the second team several minutes during which the Musketeers’ best efforts reduced the Johnnies’ lead to but ten points. Then Soriano returned and took over, scoring ten points in the last six minutes of play, on three dunks and converting four out of four free throws. He finished the game with 18 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, six blocks, and numerous pressured Xavier shots.

Takeaway One: Defense steps up

The talk of the coaching staff, players, and fan base was simple. Xavier was known for its guard play and, in past games, it had been quick, driving to the basket guards that had been the Johnnies’ nemeses. In addition, fans had observed that Xavier was a good long-range shooting team.

The Johnnies were ready. The full-court press defense after made baskets was used intermittently. On several occasions, it caused errant throws by Xavier players when attempting to inbound the pass. What did not happen was Musketeers easily breaking the press, leading to mismatched breakaways. Only once in the game did the defense allow a breakaway layup.

Equally impressive was the Johnnies’ ability to switch off to cover Musketeer attackers freed by picks. Joel Soriano played stellar under the basket, altering drives by Musketeer guards and minimizing their success. Only Desmond Claude had success against the Johnnies’ defense and that was mostly by drawing fouls and converting fourteen free throws. On field goal attempts he shot four for eleven. The long-range shooting so evident in the pregame warmups went four for twenty-one with Red Storm defenders defending the three-point attempt closely.

Takeaway Two: Balanced scoring

The Johnnies had 17 assists on 31 made field goals, a rate of 55 percent. In the team’s three losses this year the assist rate on made baskets was 40 percent against Michigan, 43 percent against Dayton, and 35 percent against Boston College.

Equally significant was the Johnnies’ ability to find the teammate most able to score as the game proceeded. In the first half with the Musketeers focused on denying Joel Soriano open looks under the basket, the Red Storm focused on getting the ball to Chris Ledlum, who responded with a team-leading ten points at the half.

In the second half, particularly the last six minutes the focus was on feeding Joel Soriano, who responded with ten points.

Being able to recognize the player in the most advantageous position to score is a step in working together to maximize each teammate’s strengths on offense.

In summary, five Johnnies scored in double figures, with Glenn Taylor a bucket behind with eight points. Balanced scoring is evidence of teams focusing on the open teammate. Xavier, in contrast, depended on two players to carry the team.

Takeaway Three: Nahiem Alleyne breaks out

Alleyne had a remarkable game. As a graduate student, the Johnnies knew he would bring stability to the team. They knew his one-on-one defense was superior. They also knew he could hit the long-range three.

The young man, who came to Coach Pitino a couple of weeks ago and stated, “Coach I apologize; I know I should play better”, did just that. Statistics say part of the story: 15 points, four rebounds and two assists in 33 minutes of play. He shot 55 percent from the floor and his chief responsibility, when both were on the floor, Quincy Olivari was held to 13 points, three under his season average. However, the key statistic is this: Olivari played 33 minutes of the game and only took six shots. The Johnnies, led by Alleyne, limited his ability to even get shots off.

Summary

There was much to like in the Johnnies’ performance against a respected Xavier team. They controlled the game from start to finish. However, there is a concern that the depth of the team, past the top six players, is questionable. The heralded freshmen: Brady Dunlap and Simeon Wilcher were hardly on the court in a game the Red Storm led in double figures throughout most of the game. Zuby Ejiofor played only five minutes; Sean Conway for four.

Drissa Traore did put in 14 minutes with five points and two rebounds.

While becoming focused on seven players will assist the team in developing chemistry, the team may not be as deep as fans anticipated at the beginning of the season.

The Red Storm are set to play UConn after the Huskies lost by 15 to Seton Hall on the same night the Johnnies were defeating Xavier. Is there a weakness on the Connecticut team to be exploited? Or will last year’s national champions be more than ready for the Red Storm after an embarrassing upset by Seton Hall? A good start at the beginning of the game, like the one the team had against Xavier, may make a difference.