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Three takeaways and observations from St. John’s 86-70 win over Butler

Dunlap and Luis emerge as forces, but the Red Storm defense requires fine-tuning

Chris Hagan

It was a sellout crowd that filled the stands well before the start of the game. Posh Alexander, starting point guard for the Johnnies the past three seasons was ready for the game, but not as a Johnny. Transferring the Butler Bulldogs before his senior season, the familiar court of Carnesecca Arena brought smiles to his face; he was ready for the game.

However the conversation among fans, before the game, was not focused on Alexander’s return. It was all about Chris Ledlum. Would he play and how well could he support Joel Soriano in combatting an expected challenge from a strong Butler frontcourt?

The Red Storm ran an interesting, fast-paced drill in pregame warm-ups for the guards, Jordan Dingle, Nahiem Alleyne, Daniss Jenkins, and Simeon Wilcher. Dribbling past a screener, each Johnny made a sharp cut towards the basket and then put up a 15 to 20-foot jumper. The drill tuned the backcourt to be prepared to take on the shorter but quick backcourt of Alexander and D.J. Davis.

When starting team introductions were announced, St. John’s fans gave a round of applause for Alexander who returned it with a wave to the stands. Then everyone, Bulldogs, Johnnies, and fans were ready for the game everyone saw to be a challenge.

Posh Alexander stands inside Butler’s pregame huddle
Chris Hagan

First Half

Alexander was ready to lead the Butler Bulldogs but the Johnnies were equally ready. Joel Soriano won the opening tap and the Johnnies ran a weave with him at the foul line setting up picks. It was similar to the practice the guards were running in the pregame. Jenkins cut off a pick towards the basket as Soriano spun towards the basket on the opposite side of the paint to be a recipient of a Jenkins feed. He obliged with a dunk and a 2-0 Red Storm lead. it was a play the team would run several times during the game.

Alexander responded with a layup, assisted by Davis, to knot the score at two. R.J. Luis, starting the game and on his way back from an injury, wowed the crowd with a reverse layup. The Johnnies pulled ahead 4-2 with 18:41 to play.

R.J. Luis cuts from the baseline and makes a reverse layup early in the first half
Chris Hagan

Three minutes into the half Chris Ledlum took down an offensive rebound then limped off the court. Coach Pitino inserted freshman Brady Dunlap to the surprise of fans expecting to see Glenn Taylor as the first Johnny off the bench.

A few seconds later, Dunlap took an inbounds pass from under the basket and hit a turnaround seven-footer to put the Johnnies in the lead 6-4.

St. John’s was in pressure defense after making baskets, falling back into a zone. Butler turned the ball over. Dunlap missed a three, his only miss on the way to a ten-point first half. Alexander drove hard to the basket drawing a foul from Soriano. He hit one of two free throws. The Red Storm lead was down to one.

Jenkins responded with a stutter-step drive down the right side of the paint and a layup to give St. John’s a three-point lead at the 16:08 mark.

As the game proceeded, the Red Storm would open up a small lead and the Bulldogs would fight back. The last tie, the result of an Alexander layup, was 19-19 at the 11:20 mark. Dunlap broke it with a twenty-footer from the left corner off a Jenkins feed.

The Red Storm held the lead for the rest of the half. With under a minute to play a Dunlap offensive rebound, a pass to Jenkins, then back to Dunlap on the right wing found Soriano cutting across the lane. With a quick feed to Soriano and a dunk, the crowd rose to its feet, extending the Johnnies lead to 45-38 at the half.

Joel Soriano hangs on the rim after a dunk in the first half
Chris Hagan

Halftime

Statistics at the half were revealing. The Johnnies outshot the Bulldogs 51 to 35 percent but it was the hustle stats that were most notable. The Red Storm outrebounded the Bulldogs 25 to 17 in the half. In addition, the Johnnies had more steals (five to three) and more blocks (four to one) than the Bulldogs.

Second Half

The Red Storm opened the second half in a zone defense that was initially ineffective. Two Bulldog three-pointers in the first minute of play, sandwiched around Ledlum’s layup, cut the lead to three at the 19:10 mark. The team adjusted going into a man-to-man defense.

No one scored for the next minute and a half. Then a 37-second sequence in which Dingle hit three free throws, Luis stole an inbounds pass and laid the ball in followed by a missed Bulldog layup with Jenkins racing downcourt for a layup put the Johnnies up by ten.

Despite the heroics of D.J. Davis, the Red Storm remained ahead throughout the game, ending the night with a 86-70 victory. As players walked off the court Soriano embraced his former teammate Alexander, each congratulating each other for a hard-fought game.

Takeaway One: The offense remains balanced

The Johnnies had five players scoring in double figures against Hofstra. Against Butler there were six, again led by Jenkins with 17 points. Soriano expectedly put up a double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds, but it was the emergence of both R.J. Luis (14 points) and Brady Dunlap (13 points) that suggests a bright future for the Johnnies offense.

The ball seemed to move effortlessly on offense, but the recording of eleven assists on 34 made baskets was most surprising. Jenkins led with seven assists, but no other teammate had more than one. The Johnnies seemed to look more and more for Jenkins to take the lead on all plays when he was on the court. Last night, he played for 34 minutes, most of all players. When he was not on the court, it was Nahiem Alleyne or Simeon Wilcher playing the role of point guard. Between those two, they only had one assist.

If Jenkins ever has to sit on the bench for an extended period, be it for a potential injury or foul trouble, it would be problematic for the Red Storm.

Daniss Jenkins dribbles to the basket
Chris Hagan

Takeaway Two: The mix of man-to-man and zone needs work

The Johnnies went with a pressure defense dropping into a zone in the first half.

Starting the second half in a zone resulted in two quick three-pointers by Butler. The Red Storm went to a man-to-man defense and the Bulldogs did not hit another three until six minutes were left in the game. Coach Pitino in a press conference after the game conceded that the team needs to work on its match-up zone.

Learning a new offense for new players acclimating themselves to one another is an easier task than learning a new defense, particularly strategically complicated defenses such as match-up zones. Breakdowns will occur amidst the learning process.

It’s only midseason, but the Johnnies have the personnel on defense to make this work long-term.

Joel Soriano and Brady Dunlap contest Posh Alexander’s layup attempt at the rim
Chris Hagan

Takeaway Three: Luis and Dunlap give St. John’s even more options

Through the first eleven games of the season, the Johnnies clearly could have used two additions. A slasher to the basket other than Jenkins and a three-point shooter to complement Dingle. In the past three games, they have utilized a slasher in R.J. Luis and a three-point shooter in Brady Dunlap. Both front-court players have shown an ability to bring the ball up and play defense. With the game relatively close in the first half, Dunlap blocked a layup, leading to Luis pushing the ball upcourt and feeding Alleyne for a jumper.

The contributions of these newcomers shows up beyond the scoring column. The Johnnies have a tough segment of the league schedule before them, and expanded array of offensive weapons is more than simply welcome, it is necessary.

Brady Dunlap holds onto the ball before making a pass
Chris Hagan

Outlook

A road game with a good Villanova game is a challenge. The Johnnies went up to Storrs, Connecticut, and almost pulled off a victory against the number four team in the nation. Yes, the Connecticut Huskies were missing Donovan Clingan, but his replacement Samson Johnson played admirably in the game.

Adjustments are still being made, particularly on defense. Against Michigan and Hofstra, their quick guards, who can shoot the three, provide challenges to the Red Storm.

Based on the performance against Connecticut, albeit a loss, any game in the Big East is a challenging but winnable game.

A win over Villanova at Finneran Pavilion would be a major plus for their resume. The expanding offensive weapons are here. The recognition that the zone defense, so effective at times, needs work, is present. Still, the future is looking bright for the Red Storm.