The stakes are massive for the St. John’s men’s basketball team. Tonight, they face the defending national champion UConn Huskies on the road in front of a national TV audience on FOX (or FOX Banquet, as our friends at Anonymous Eagle would say), with a chance to notch a trademark win on their tournament résumé.
St. John’s is coming off an impressive 81-66 win over Xavier on Wednesday night in which they never trailed. Five different players scored in double-figures as the Red Storm faced little resistance against the Musketeers.
Nahiem Alleyne will make his return to Hartford to face the team he won a national championship with last season. At yesterday’s media availability, he addressed the unique mixture of emotions entering a game like this, but he sent a clear message.
Nahiem Alleyne on UConn: "I can’t be friends out there, even though I know those guys and won a national championship with those guys. But at the end of the day, I’m on the opposite team. I’m here to kill them and get a ‘dub. Simple as that.” #sjubb— Zach Braziller (@NYPost_Brazille) December 22, 2023
Before tonight’s game, Jon Rothstein reported that R.J. Luis will be active and on a minutes restriction in tonight’s game after missing the past five games with shin splints.
St. John's RJ Luis (shin) will be available for tonight's game against UConn, but will be on a minutes restriction, per Rick Pitino.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 23, 2023
Had 14 points and four rebounds in the one game he played on 11/25 versus Holy Cross.
Transfer from UMass.
Who: St. John’s Red Storm vs. No. 5 UConn Huskies (10-2)
When: Saturday, December 23, 2023, 8:00 p.m.
Where: XL Center, Hartford, Connecticut
Opening Odds: UConn (-11.5), O/U at 147.5
Series History: St. John’s leads UConn, 37-31. The Red Storm are 2-5 against UConn since they returned to the Big East in 2020, with both of those wins coming on the road.
Scouting the Huskies
UConn enters tonight’s game as the AP Poll’s fifth-ranked team in the country with a 10-2 record and double-digit wins over Texas, North Carolina, and Gonzaga. They are coming off an inexplicable 15-point loss to Seton Hall from Wednesday night, in which they went cold from the field and allowed a season-worst 54.2% two-point percentage against a Pirates squad that struggled mightily with finishing throughout non-conference play.
The major storyline entering tonight’s game is how will Donovan Clingan’s absence affect UConn? The preseason All-Big East second teamer suffered a sprained ankle in Wednesday night’s game, departing after only 14 minutes of game action.
Clingan’s impact on the court is impossible to replicate. The 7-foot-2 giant averages 13.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks in only 20.7 minutes per game. His greatest strength isn’t represented in box scores, as his gargantuan frame shuts down pick-and-rolls in space and deters any dribble penetration at the rim.
Highlights of Donovan Clingan in UConn's win over Gonzaga— Ryan Cassidy (@ryancassidycbb) December 16, 2023
Clingan finished with 21 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists & 2 blocks. His +15 on the Box Score led all players.
Impacts both ends of the floor pic.twitter.com/SqxTKzMO6e
With Clingan out, junior Samson Johnson would make his first career start tonight. The 6-foot-10 Johnson has been a solid shot-swatter, with his 5.7% block percentage ranking in the country’s top 150, but there is a massive drop-off in impact between Clingan and Johnson. When he stepped in for Clingan on Wednesday night, he had a quiet 2 point, 2 rebound performance on a night when many Huskies struggled.
Despite the loss of Clingan, UConn still has an embarrassment of riches all over their roster. Triple-double threat Tristen Newton leads the team in scoring (16.3 points per game), rebounds (6.8), assists (5.6), and steals (1.4). His mixture of playmaking chops, shot creation, and physical 6-foot-5 frame allows him to constantly remain in the middle of the action.
Stretch four Alex Karaban (14.7 ppg) has drastically improved his jumper, sinking his fair share of clutch end-of-shot-clock jumpers. Karaban is also very active on the boards. Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer (14.8 ppg) is a ridiculously confident knockdown shooter and leads the Big East in three-point percentage (44.3%). Five-star guard Stephon Castle (8.2 ppg) comes off the bench as he is still recovering from a knee injury that sidelined him for six games this season, but he has shown flashes of his NBA-caliber talent with his hyper-athletic finishing ability and strong perimeter defense.
This collection of talent and diversity of skills has made UConn one of the most well-rounded teams in the country, and the advanced stats reflect that. According to KenPom, they’re ranked 4th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency, being one of only seven teams in the country to be ranked in the top 20 in each category. Of course, it all comes back to Donovan Clingan. Can UConn figure out how to maintain that quality with his absence?
Keys to the Game
Attack the rim - With Clingan ruled out, Joel Soriano should get to work against the smaller Samson Johnson. St. John’s has been allergic to the free throw line so far this season, but tonight would be an amazing night to chip away at the basket and test UConn’s shaky frontcourt depth.
Generate high-percentage shots - Watch UConn on defense for a couple of possessions and it’s clear they are a very sticky and difficult-to-shake team along the perimeter. The length and agility makes it difficult for opposing teams to find their spots and take high-percentage shots. A recipe of last season’s 85-74 road win over the Huskies were sharp cuts to the basket and smart off-ball movement. The Red Storm’s off-ball players need to be proactive and create space on the floor.
Protect the paint - The Huskies are an amazing rim-running unit, thanks to guards like Tristen Newton, Solomon Ball, and Stephon Castle. Rick Pitino finally unleashed zone defense after weeks of tinkering in practice and it froze out Quincy Olivari and Dayvion McKnight. The re-introduction of a zone could help in a matchup like this, but St. John’s should be prepared for players like Cam Spencer or Alex Karaban to bomb threes over the defense.
The absence of Donovan Clingan transforms the tenor of this entire game. UConn’s performance immediately fell off a cliff the moment Clingan left Wednesday night’s game against Seton Hall, but the Huskies are still a very talented unit even without their big man. The Red Storm are on an upward trajectory, but they will hit a speed bump on the road. UConn wins, 79-70.