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Three takeaways and observations from St. John’s home win over Villanova

Soriano bounces back, Wilcher impresses, and the defense suffocates ‘Nova

St. John’s Red Storm center Joel Soriano (11) dunks in the second half against the Villanova Wildcats at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports

An energized crowd dominated by shades of red was ready for the fireworks of the evening. With Anna Negrón sharing an inspiring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner before the game’s start, fans loudly applauded. One long-time season ticket holder stated, “I guarantee that the Red Storm wins tonight.”

First Half

Coach Pitino indicated a change of plans when the starting lineup of Joel Soriano, Daniss Jenkins, R.J. Luis, Chris Ledlum, and freshman Simeon Wilcher was announced. This was not only Wilcher’s first start; it was a rare occasion for the Johnnies’ two point guards to be in the same lineup.

Within the first few minutes, it was clear that change was on its way. Yes, Soriano was up at the top of the key for the first few sets. After a teammate passed by his screen, he would cut towards the basket, setting up down low. His teammates were looking for him. Early on, after a Luis three from the top of the key, Luis fed Soriano on the next Red Storm possession, who converted the pass into a layup and a 4-3 lead. The Johnnies never looked back.

Freshman Wilcher was ready to perform, and with the Red Storm up by one, he blocked a Dixon layup, then ten seconds later assisted Soriano, who hit a jumper from the foul line for a 7 to 4 lead.

It was clear that something would be different in this game. The Johnnies came out in a man-to-man defense but quickly shifted to a match-up zone, then back to a man-to-man. The Wildcats seemed uncertain about how to attack. Soriano was quick to cover when Villanova could penetrate, and the result was a forced pass to whoever might hopefully salvage the play.

After the 11:10 official time-out, Glenn Taylor entered the game and hit a 22-footer from the left wing off a feed from Jordan Dingle. The second team was doing its part as the Johnnies went up 16-11. Then, after a Jenkins steal, Dingle extended the lead with a layup. Drissa Traore followed with a two-play contribution. First, he cleanly blocked a Mark Armstrong layup, then, eighteen seconds later, hit a three from the left wing, and the Johnnies were up 21-11.

The rest of the half found the Johnnies ahead by eight or more points for the next ten minutes. The Red Storm closed out the half with two jump shots by Wilcher to take a 32-22 lead into the break.

Halftime

A Villanova fan expressed disappointment in his team’s poor performance in the first half. When asked who most impressed him on the Red Storm during the first half of play, he responded – Simeon Wilcher for his athleticism, speed, and overall play. He summed up, “St. Johns has a good one there,” and referenced not only his assists but his block and steals earlier in the half.

Statistics told the whole story. The Johnnies led in every major category except for turnovers, where the teams tied at six. Most impressive was a lead in assisted baskets, nine to four, and more accurate three-point shooting, 36 % for the Johnnies to 15 % for the Wildcats.

Second Half

The first half featured balanced scoring for the Red Storm. No one accumulated more than six points, but six players had scored multiple baskets. Would the balanced scoring continue in the second half? Would the Johnnies continue their control of the boards?

On an assist from Jenkins, Soriano hit a jumper to extend the lead to twelve. Then the Red Storm went cold, and then Eric Dixon began asserting himself. After a Dixon layup and two made free throws, the lead was down to six, 34-28. Twenty seconds later, a spectacular Jenkins pass to Chris Ledlum, cutting from the left corner to the basket, led to a dunk, and the lead was back to eight.

For the next four minutes, it was mostly Soriano for the Johnnies and Dixon for the Wildcats trading baskets. A Hakin Hart layup cut the lead to five with 12:46 to play. St. Johns called a time-out.

The Johnnies had become careless on the offensive end with turnovers and poor shot selection. The Villanova zone had stifled the Johnnies in the half. After the time-out, the Red Storm fed Soriano deep in the paint. He spun to his left, going across the paint, and was fouled as he put up a six-footer. He made both foul shots, putting the Johnnies up by seven.

Dixon made a nice reverse layup with Soriano all over him to cut the lead again to five, but twenty seconds later, Jenkins hit a three, extending the lead to eight.

A Soriano layup and foul shot extended the lead to double digits with nine minutes to play.

He and Dingle led the Johnnies to a 70-50 victory throughout the game.

Takeaway One: Joel Soriano bounced back

Soriano had not met his expectations in the previous three games. During pregame practice, he appeared relaxed and enjoyed warmups with his teammates. He was ready for an expected competition with Villanova star Eric Dixon.

It is evident that Dixon was also ready. The battles for advantageous position deep in the paint were apparent early in the first half. Both men battled, and it appeared to be a first-half draw. Soriano ended the half with six points, Dixon with five.

The offensive game plan included an effort to feature each player in the second half. Each frontcourt star responded, but Soriano’s five-for-five shooting successfully led the Johnnies through the first ten minutes as the Wildcats fought hard to close the gap.

Soriano hit a variety of shots, including jumpers. Having the confidence to shoot the jumper when open will go a long way toward expanding his game.

Lastly, Soriano’s defense was impactful. He only had one block and took down seven defensive rebounds. Most importantly, he was in position down low to thwart several drives by Wildcat players, causing them to pass the ball in desperation to teammates, leading to offensive possessions with little time to get off a shot.

St. John’s Red Storm center Joel Soriano (11) hugs head coach Rick Pitino in the second half against the Villanova Wildcats at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz
Joel Soriano hugs Rick Pitino in the second half
Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports

Takeaway Two: Simeon Wilcher flashed his high potential

Daniss Jenkins has done an excellent job as the Johnnies’ point guard this season. However, he has often been on the court more than any other Johnnie. Wilcher’s performance against Villanova may lead to more playing time for himself and more rest for Jenkins.

Wilcher impressed in all aspects of the game. Yes, he struggled early on when T.J. Bamba beat him from the left corner and hit a layup, but that was it. Afterward, Wilcher was on his man and even shifted over to cover Eric Dixon on a drive and tied him up. He had two turnovers in seventeen minutes of playing time and demonstrated a shooting touch from 15 to 17 feet away.

The Johnnies need all-around guards who can shoot the outside shot. We saw Wilcher provide this against Nova. Can it be repeated? With his quickness, while handling the ball, he should be able to free himself for the mid-range jumper. Will Wilcher add mid-range shooting to his portfolio of skills?

Takeaway Three: The defense shut down the ‘Cats again

Villanova struggled throughout the game with the Johnnies defense, which shifted between a match-up zone and a man-to-man. Over the season, the Wildcats’ field goal percentage was 42% on field goals and 33% on threes. In this game, their percentage was 37.5% on field goals and 16% on threes.

The Johnnies’ rotating defenses stymied the Wildcats, and the Johnnies’ dominance on the boards limited their second-chance opportunities to five offensive rebounds while the Johnnies took down fifteen.

Coupling the lack of second-chance points with an inability to even get shots off on drives to the basket doomed the Wildcats.

Just a few days ago, the Wildcats fought hard and lost to the number one team in the country, Connecticut, by one point. In that game, the Wildcats made 45% of their field goal attempts and 30% of their threes.

Complex defenses similar to what the Johnnies run take time to learn. In this game, there was less pointing from one teammate to another about defensive positioning. It seemed to be coming together.

St. John’s Red Storm forward Drissa Traore (55) and Villanova Wildcats guard Justin Moore (5) fight for the ball in the second half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz
Drissa Traore and Justin Moore fight for the ball in the second half
Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports

Outlook

There is a week off until the next game at Xavier. It’s a week off for Nahiem Alleyne to get healthy and R.J. Luis to rest his shin splints amidst team workouts. There will be a week to continue to develop the defensive cohesiveness.

Will someone pick up the long-range shooting? Most Johnnies are shooting in the low thirties, with Taylor being the only one over forty at 43.6 percent. The good news is that the team shoots 33.3 % for the season while holding opponents to 31.3%. It’s not an extreme difference, but a clear difference nonetheless.

One true strength is rebounding, even with the poor game at Seton Hall figured in. The team has a wide margin when compared with opponents. The Johnnies average 40.2 rebounds to the opponent’s 34.2 rebounds per game.

Compared to opponents, six extra rebounds per game plus a slightly better three-point shooting average should point to success.

If the Johnnies continue to tighten the defense and get players healthy, the future looks positive. Facing Xavier away will not be easy, but the Johnnies have been competitive away from home and soundly defeated Xavier at Carnesecca earlier in the season.

It’s essential to take it one game at a time, making adjustments along the way. With Coach Pitino and his staff taking the lead, fans can be confident that game planning will be excellent. The potential exists for a successful future.