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St. John’s vs. Villanova men’s basketball preview and game thread

The Johnnies try to pick up their first win in Finneran Pavilion since 1993

Villanova Wildcats forward Eric Dixon (43) collides with Saint John’s Red Storm center Joel Soriano (11) in the first half at William B. Finneran Pavilion. Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports

Let’s take a trip in the Wayback machine to Wednesday, January 13, 1993. The United States began a series of airstrikes on Iraq during President George H.W. Bush’s final week in office; Whitney Houston continued to top the charts with her dramatic version of “I Will Always Love You”; Mark Messier scored the game-winner to help the New York Rangers complete a home comeback over the Washington Capitals, and junior Lee Green’s breakaway dunk hushed the Du Pont Pavilion crowd and sealed a 76-70 win for the St. John’s men’s basketball team over Villanova.

A lot has changed culturally and politically since — as well as namesakes of arenas and teams — but St. John’s is still searching for their first win inside Villanova’s on-campus arena since that drizzly Wednesday night in suburban Philadelphia nearly 31 years ago. This Saturday’s game against the Wildcats could be the Red Storm’s best chance to end that streak in decades.

Game information

Who: St. John’s Red Storm vs. RV Villanova Wildcats (10-4)

When: Saturday, January 6, 2024, 1:00 p.m.

Where: Finneran Pavilion, Villanova, PA

TV: FOX

Opening Odds: St. John’s are 4.5-point underdogs, O/U at 144.5

Series History: Villanova leads, 66-63. St. John’s has lost their last six meetings with the Wildcats.

Résumé review

St. John’s is 10-4 overall and has started 2-1 in Big East play for the first time since the 2018-19 season, which was also the last time they reached the NCAA tournament. They are coming off an impressive 86-70 home win over Butler on Tuesday night, in which they never trailed and six Red Storm players scored in double-figures. St. John’s are currently rated 42nd in KenPom (6th in the Big East) and 45th in NET rankings (5th in the Big East). Their records by NET quadrants are as follows, with opponents defeated in bold:

  • 1-2 in Quad 1 games (Utah, Dayton, @ UConn)
  • 3-1 in Quad 2 games (North Texas, Boston College, Xavier, Butler)
  • 2-1 in Quad 3 games (Michigan, @ West Virginia, Hofstra)
  • 4-0 in Quad 4 games (Stony Brook, Holy Cross, Sacred Heart, Fordham)

Note that Dayton, Utah, North Texas, and Boston College are designated as neutral site games

Facing Villanova away gives St. John’s an opportunity at their second Quad 1 victory of the season and their first in a true road game.

St. John’s was selected in 20 of 41 different bracketology selections with an average seed of 11.30, according to Bracket Matrix’s update today. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has St. John’s as the second team out in his latest update.

Injury updates

UPDATE: R.J. Luis is active (shin splints) for today’s game, but Chris Ledlum (ankle sprain) is OUT. According to Zach Braziller, neither player practiced on Friday afternoon before the team departed for Villanova.

Scouting the Wildcats

You never knew what kind of Villanova team would take the court through the first six weeks of the season. The Wildcats rolled through Texas Tech, North Carolina, and Memphis en route to a Battle 4 Atlantis championship during Thanksgiving weekend, but ‘Nova was also bewitched by Penn, Saint Joseph’s, and Drexel to finish an unprecedented 0-3 in Big 5 competition. Some passionate fans called for Kyle Neptune’s coaching job, declaring the situation an “abomination.”

And then they began righting the ship, particularly on the defensive end. After their overtime road loss to Kansas State, Villanova allowed opponents to shoot 41.6% from the field and 36.3% from three in their first ten games. In the four straight wins since, they’re holding opposing teams to 36% from the field and 24.7% from three. Their offense isn’t aesthetically pleasing like Jay Wright’s units, but they lean on their length and switchability on defense to win games.

Some of that success can be attributed to Kyle Neptune shrinking the rotation and relying on his starters. One of the starters that has been the fulcrum of the Wildcats is senior center Eric Dixon, who leads the team with 14.8 points per game and boasts an all-around offensive game. Dixon pulls down rebounds with regularity — touting 9.7% offensive rebound and 17.3% defensive rebound rates — he can distribute the ball as his 11.8% assist rate ranks in the 79th percentile among big men, and he shoots 37.3% from three while taking 3.6 attempts per game. Albeit a little undersized at 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds, he can take on guards and defend the perimeter.

If there are knocks against Dixon, it’s that he isn’t a great finisher (shooting 52.6% from two), and he rarely blocks shots (1.9% BLK) or forces steals (1.1% STL).

Fifth-year guard Justin Moore (13.3 PPG) is day-to-day with a right knee sprain, having missed the Wildcats’ last four games. Moore has struggled to find his shooting touch this season, firing 39% from the field and 30% from three after being a 35% career three-point shooter through his first four collegiate seasons.

Moore isn’t the only Wildcat struggling to find his scoring touch. The Cats are shooting 48.4% from inside the arc and 33.4% from three as a team; both marks have been the worst for the program since 2013. T.J. Bamba, Jordan Longino, Mark Armstrong, and Tyler Burton are each shooting 33 percent or worse from three. Maryland transfer Hakim Hart (40%) and Brendan Hausen (36.8%) are the only reliable deep-threat options outside Eric Dixon. Compounding their three-point inefficiency is that they take too many threes, with their 49% three-point attempt rate ranking 6th highest in the nation.

Their gaudy three-point shooting is unlike previous Villanova squads, but Neptune’s squad is a pastiche of past Jay Wright teams in other aspects. The Wildcats still play a languid tempo (327th in KenPom adjusted tempo), they take care of the ball (62nd lowest turnover rate), they prevent opponents from getting second-chance opportunities (24th in offensive rebound percentage allowed), and they are an elite free throw shooting team (81.6%, which is 3rd best in the nation).

Keys to the game

Nix Dixon - Eric Dixon is the straw that stirs the drink. He won’t hunker down in the post like typical college bigs, and assuming R.J. Luis and/or Chris Ledlum are out, Joel Soriano’s ability to defend around the perimeter will be paramount to any path of St. John’s winning this game.

Keep Nova off the free throw line - Villanova is not that good offensively, but they are an incredible free throw shooting team. St. John’s cannot allow the ‘Cats to hoard freebies and compensate for their offensive troubles.

Survive the run - The Wildcats have enjoyed game-shifting runs before turning each of their last two home meetings against St. John’s into laughers. In 2021-22, they went on a 23-4 run near the end of the first half after being neck and neck with the Red Storm during the first ten minutes of action. Last season, they went on a 20-2 run spanning two halves after St. John’s held an early 29-18 lead. If Villanova finds a flurry of scoring, St. John’s needs to stay composed and withstand that run.

Prediction

St. John’s has many Big East arenas they could consider houses of horrors, but Finneran Pavilion is the place that has haunted them the most. For the first time in a blue moon, St. John’s won’t embarrass themselves on Villanova’s campus. This will be a tight game, but I don’t think St. John’s will snap their 31-year losing streak at the Pavilion. Villanova wins, 71-67.