The conference members may be changing in a few years, but tonight, the Big East has a three day task to win the SEC/ Big East Challenge trophy. Last season, St. John's played a road game against Kentucky and lost in Rupp Arena, showing the world what kind of potential talent was on the squad.
Matching up against the South Carolina Gamecocks is a little less marquee, but will be another chance for the Red Storm to gain national exposure against a well-known coach who demands toughness from his squad. St. John's is making the game, held on campus at Carnesecca Arena, a special one by calling for a "blackout", and whipping out the all-black uniforms.
The Gamecocks, meanwhile, come to New York for their first true road game, and a test against the best opponent and talent they have faced all season. "Going on the road is hard," coach Frank Martin said. "It's fun - it challenges your mettle." The game is part of a tougher stitch. After St. John's, the Gamecocks play their rivalry game against Clemson.
But tonight, South Carolina will be challenged by the Johnnies' athleticism. But they could whip out a few surprises for St. John's that don't appear on the scouting report. More, below.
Jay-Z, "22 Twos" (NSFW language)
Tip Off: 7:30 PM
Vs. South Carolina Gamecocks (5-1; coach, Frank Martin)
Location: Carnesecca Arena, Queens, NY
TV: ESPNU | ESPN3 | Radio: Bloomburg 1130
Scouting South Carolina
For years, Frank Martin has proven his early critics wrong. Thought to be only a recruiter when working for Bob Huggins at Cincinnati and then at Kansas State, Martin built the KSU Wildcats into a perennial Big 12 contender. The Octagon of Doom nickname became a euphemism for the gritty, physical, ragged way his teams took opponents out of their comfort zone and forced them into bad shots.
Some beef with his athletic director caused Martin to look the way of South Carolina, a team that hadn't tasted much success in the Southeastern Conference in the past decade. The 10-21 Gamecocks lucked into a coach whose methods and demeanor sometimes draw sideward glances, but who molds a team into a winning look. For one of the worst defensive teams in the SEC last season, a lot of shaping was called for.
In a pair of neutral site games in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Martin's team seemed to find a better defesive stride, forcing opponents into bad shots. The Gamecocks have played a pair of overtime games and lost to North Carolina's Elon from the Southern Conference. Given the quality of competition, it's hard to think of the 5-1 record of South Carolina as robust.
So they come to Queens to prove that their undersized squad can win against the big boys.
[More scouting from our Q and A with Garnet and Black Attack | Our responses to their questions]
The upside for the Gamecocks is that they crash the offensive boards with zeal, like every Frank Martin team does. Starting forward Lakeem Jackson is only 6'5", but is wide, and has been efficient at the basket while taking in 18% of available defensive rebounds, and rebounding 11% of the boards on the offensive end - both good marks. Venezualean freshman Michael Carrera (via Montrose Christian) grabs even higher percentages on both ends when he's on the floor, but he's also 6'5" and 212 pounds.
Also joining the crash party on the offensive end is returning forward RJ Slawson and freshman Mindaugas Kacinas. Slawson is 6'8" but has been known to be defensively questionable.
Martin's teams love to be physical and get to the free throw line; St. John's Christian Jones and Chris Obekpa will need to watch for foul trouble in the paint.
So far, the Gamecocks have surprised by crafting a solid scoring offense from guards LaShay Page, Brenton Williams, and Brian Richardson. The trio have combined to shoot just under 40% from beyond the arc, but can be beaten off of the dribble.
But those guards - and the forwards - are susceptible to turnovers as part of the process of building the team to play the way the coach wants. "I like high-possession games," Martin said. "To play high possession games, you have to trust your players. Your turnovers are going to be a little high."
Frank Martin worries about those turnovers against the Red Storm's athletes. "If we have a game of 20, 22 turnovers, we might be in trouble, because they'll convert every single one of those into a basket," he said.
One of South Carolina's best players in the past two seasons has been junior guard Bruce Ellington, an undersized point guard who can get shots and pass the ball. Unfortunately, he spends the first couple of months of the season playing wide receiver for Steve Spurrier's squad.
But while the Gamecocks are taking a break before bowl game practices, Ellington is back with the Gamecocks - and practicing. "Could he play?" Frank Martin responded to a question in his press conference. "I don't see why not."
Also returning is freshman forward and the Gamecocks' top recruit, Laimonas Chatkevicius. from Lithuania via South Kent. Frank Martin knows his strength is his 6'11" size. "He's obviously tall, and I hope that becomes productive in some way," Martin said. He comes with some shooting and passing skills, but Martin hopes to mold him into a paint player.
Cast of Characters
St. John's should expect to see undersized forwards flying at the offensive glass with abandon - South Carolina rebounds 44.6% of their own misses, 6th best rate in the country. The Gamecocks will take advantage if the Red Storm can't clear the glass. Board duty is everyone's job, but the most important part will be to keep the Gamecock forwards from open lanes to the rim after missed shots.
Solid as a rock.
St. John's forwards will be challenged by the energy of the Gamecocks going to the basket. If they play the right way - whether in the man-to-man, as Steve Lavin mentioned yesterday afternoon, or in the zone - the Johnnies have to be fundamentally sound and locate the South Carolina shooters, while staying in position to block shots at the rim. St. John's has allowed opponents to shoot 35% from beyond the arc, but are one of the best teams in the country at blocking shots, rejecting 22% of 2-pointers. (Hence the Jay-Z reference in the mood music.)
Slip and tear.
The Gamecoks have been one of the most turnover-prone teams in the country, giving the ball away on over 28% of their possessions. The ballhandling can be sloppy, and many of the players attack off the dribble. Coach Martin has quantified the problem: "our turnovers cost us directly, about 8-12 points per game, where we can't defend the shots the other team takes because they're breakaway layups." Can a return of Bruce Ellington (TO% last year - 19%, solid for a ball handler) change that?
High powered shooting.
Phil Greene and the St. John's guards drew high praise for Frank Martin. "Their skill level is real good. Their three guards [including JaKarr Sampson], their skill level is phenomenal," he said. Martin's defense wants to force opponents to play one-on-one and not pass the ball. With Phil Greene in transition, St. John's should take them up on the offer, frustrating their defense with highly skilled shooting in the mid-range.
Prediction: South Carolina should come out tough against St. John's. But unless they go to a zone, St. John's should take advantage of their defensive lapses and remind the Gamecoacks that they have a long way to go. It won't be easy, but it should be a win. The prediction - St. John's wins 75-66.