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Three takeaways plus observations from St. John’s narrow win over Providence

The matchup zone is steadily improving, but turnovers were a red flag

Chris Hagan

The St. John’s Red Storm entered the first Big East Madison Square Garden game of the 2023-24 season as seven-point favorites, a spread that many fans felt was high. Despite losing one of its star players, Bryce Hopkins, the Friars from Providence were still a formidable team.

First Half

At the start of the game, the Red Storm came out on fire, led by three top-of-the-key jumpers by freshman Brady Dunlap. They were sandwiched around a three from the left wing by grad student Daniss Jenkins. The team’s young and old set the pace to an early 10-0 lead. One fan responding to Dunlap’s heroics quipped, “Nothing like committed practice to instill confidence.”

Brady Dunlap takes a mid-range jumper
Chris Hagan

The lead ballooned to 20-5 at the 12:58 mark of the half after a Chris Ledlum rebound with a feed to Jordan Dingle on the left wing for a three. A minute later, at an official timeout, the Red Storm held a 20-6 lead. They held Providence to 33 percent shooting while converting eight out of eleven field goal attempts.

The matchup zone on defense was befuddling the Friars, who often put up shots with the thirty-second shot clock running down.

Devin Carter, who would eventually score 31 points in the game, came alive as the Friars trimmed the Red Storm lead to seven with 6:40 to play in the half.

The leading scorer for the Johnnies this season, Joel Soriano, did not score until Dingle found him low on the right block with two minutes to play in the half. A fake left the Friar defender off balance, and Soriano hit a smooth four-foot jumper for his only first-half points.

The Johnnies took a 40-29 lead into halftime, but fans expressed anxiety during the break. The Johnnies had been outrebounding the Friars when they built their big lead. Still, the Friars’ strategy had been changing, and they were successfully hitting the offensive boards, fueling a comeback.

Second Half

During the first half, the Johnnies centers, Soriano and backup Zuby Ejiofor, spent most offensive possessions setting screens 15 to 20 feet from the basket. One minute into the second half, the Johnnies displayed a new strategy. After a Luis rebound and push up the court, Soriano received a pass down low, spun across the paint, and put up a hook shot, drawing a foul from Carter. After Soriano made both foul shots, the Red Storm lead was back to eleven a minute into the half. The Johnnies seemed even better off as Soriano was now coming alive. But that was not to be.

The Johnnies did not score for two and a half minutes, and a Carter three cut the lead to three.

A Soriano dunk, assisted by Jenkins, expanded the lead to five with a little over sixteen to play. But a 6-0 run put the Friars ahead by one at the 14:30 mark of the half. It was the first time the Red Storm had trailed in a game since they lost to Connecticut on December 23, 2023.

The Garden vibrated with the chant, “Let’s Go Friars.” It was a volume dwarfing any chants from Johnnies fans to this point in the game.

A minute passed then Dunlap, who had not scored since his early-game flourish, cut across an open lane to receive a perfect feed from Jenkins and dunked the ball. The Johnnies were up 46-45. They never gave up the lead, but the game had plenty of drama.

The Johnnies were focused on getting the ball to Soriano down low, and the Friars were focused on impeding these efforts. They intercepted one pass, leading to a Carter breakaway dunk. Coach Pitino called for Ejiofor to replace Soriano, but before Ejiofor could enter the game, Soriano hit a layup off a feed from Jenkins and was fouled. He made the and-one free throw, and the Johnnies were up by four.

Joel Soriano is fired up after making a layup and drawing the foul
Chris Hagan

Shortly afterward, Ejiofor replaced him. The Johnnies continued to feed the ball down low, this time to Ejiofor, who dunked the ball. On their next possession, the ball quickly went down low to Ejiofor, who drew a foul, going one for two on the charity line. The Johnnies were up by seven.

Ejiofor continued his heroics by blocking a Friar shot. Jenkins grabbed the blocked ball, sprinted down the court, and was fouled. The Johnnies took the ball out from under the Friars’ basket and found an open Jenkins in the right corner for a three. They led by ten.

The lead extended to thirteen, 61-48, after a Ledlum free throw with eight minutes to play. The Johnnies appeared to be in control of the game. But the Friar team fought on.

With three minutes to play, a Carter jumper cut the Red Storm lead to four. The Johnnies brought the ball up the floor and went into a weave deep outside the paint. With time running down, R.J. Luis hit a jumper from the foul line, extending the lead to six.

In the last two minutes, the Friars kept fighting, and the Johnnies kept missing free throws. The lead was 74-73 after a Carter layup with ten seconds to play. The crowd was on its feet, but one fan sat, stating, “I’m too nervous to stand; this game is too close.”

Dunlap was fouled in the backcourt. Now, there were six seconds to play. Dunlap walked up the court limping from an earlier injury and missed two free throws, but Luis took down an offensive rebound and was fouled. Four seconds left on the clock. The nervous fan was beside herself and stated, “Just tell me what happened .”Luis hit one of two free throws for a two-point lead. Jordon Pierre, who had hit three three-pointers earlier in the game, raced down the court and put up a thirty-footer with time expiring. It came up short, and St. John’s narrowly won 75-73.

Soriano and Ejiofor’s ability to draw attention helped

Freshman Brady Dunlap hit three open jumpers in the first two minutes of play; two were off high screens set by Joel Soriano. Providence called time out right after the third jumper. After defensive adjustments by the Friars, Dunlap did not see an open jumper for the rest of the game. However, his only points through the rest of the game were important ones. He freed himself, cutting across the paint and dunking the ball, putting the Red Storm back in the lead for good. That was it for his offensive production.

The game plan called for Soriano and backup center Zuby Ejiofor to set high screens throughout the first half. The result: Soriano took two shots and Ejiofor one in the first half. The Johnnies, at times, tried to feed Soriano underneath the basket, but the Friars did an excellent job bottling him up. Nevertheless, even without his usual contribution to the scoring, the Johnnies went into the half with an eleven-point lead. Why? The Red Storm took advantage of lanes opening up in the paint as Friar defenders were focused on Soriano away from the basket.

In the second half, the game plan changed. Yes, there were still some high screens, but after the Friar run that brought them back into the game, the effort to feed Soriano intensified, and he responded with fourteen second-half points on three field goals and going eight for eleven from the line. It was not easy.

Partway through the half, Ejiofor subbed for Soriano. The Friars responded by focusing the defense away from the center position, and Red Storm teammates found Ejiofor open on two consecutive possessions under the basket.

The Johnnies seem to be becoming very aware of their teammates and taking advantage when the opportunity arises. It is part of a learning curve, and when it was needed most after the Friar run. Red Storm players, particularly Jenkins, focused on dishing the ball to open teammates. This was progress on the offensive end, which will bear fruit as the season progresses.

The matchup zone is still a work in progress

Matchup zones are not easy to implement. It may take a season to master this defense. If mastered by Big East playoff week, then the Red Storm should do well.

The Red Storm appeared to open the game in a matchup 2-3 zone. As the Friars were methodically bringing the ball up, Red Storm players could be seen pointing to each other as to the proper rotations. Once Pitino’s defense was set, the Friars appeared frustrated. As the ball moved around the perimeter, St. John’s defenders moved quickly to defend Friar attackers. The Red Storm’s wings were careful not to get too far out of position, which might offer Friar wings open shots, particularly from the corners. The wings from the opposite side of the court would move into the paint in a good rebounding position. The result was a poor shooting performance by the Friars. Coupled with the Johnnies dominating the boards in the first ten minutes, the Red Storm established an early lead.

Rick Pitino on the sideline
Chris Hagan

As the half continued, Providence began pushing the ball up court and found open avenues to the basket as the Johnnies zone organized itself. Coach Pitino changed defenses to straight man-to-man to disrupt the Friar flow.

The fact that the Johnnies could pressure the inbound pass after making baskets and then fall back into the zone was impressive.

The ability to make needed rotations on time is something that will improve with experience. Overall, the defense played well when not beaten down on the court by aggressive Friar attackers.

Joel Soriano guards Jayden Pierre
Chris Hagan

Turnovers remain a concern

Turnovers happen particularly with teams like the Johnnies, who play aggressively. In this game, the Johnnies led in all categories except for steals and turnovers. The Friars were credited with eight steals, and the Johnnies made four.

Give Providence credit. Three of the steals were by 6-foot-9 Josh Oduro, who was hounding Soriano with swarming teammates whenever he ventured low in the paint. But some Red Storm turnovers were self-inflicted – careless passing being one.

The Johnnies run a lot of weaves on offense. As a result, it is a quick offense and is susceptible to mistakes. Each game, the offense seems a bit smoother. The Johnnies need to study tape of their individual and team performance to correct their errors. With the Pitino emphasis on preparation, it is fair to expect improvement in this aspect of the game.

The Johnnies committed 13 turnovers, while Providence had ten. In a close game like this game, turnovers truly matter,

Outlook

When the Johnnies are playing according to script, they have been outstanding, but sometimes, despite being primarily a veteran team, they get careless and are inconsistent. If the team performs like the first half of the Villanova and Providence teams, they can compete with anyone.

Upcoming is an away game at Creighton, where the Red Storm has shown little success in recent years. This is a test similar to the challenge of playing Connecticut. The team almost won that game, so expect the game against Creighton to be competitive.

The matchups are very intriguing, particularly Soriano against Ryan Kalkbrenner. How will the newly used matchup zone do against a veteran and well-coached team, the Creighton Blue Jays? This Red Storm team will be prepared, and the Soriano/Jenkins duo will lead the way.