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The good and bad of St. John's non-conference play

We review the non-conference statistics, shot selection, and defensive improvement of St. John's as the team uses the extended layoff to prepare for Big East play.

St. John's lead the nation in shot-blocking, but have struggled to put away opponents.
St. John's lead the nation in shot-blocking, but have struggled to put away opponents.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Last weekend's St. John's vs UNC-Asheville game - you know it well, it's the loss that you couldn't believe happened - signaled the end of a non-conference slate that inspired a number more questions than it answered questions.

D`Angelo Harrison may be a sure thing on offense, likely to be considered for all-Big East honors, but what about the rest of the team? Why do the Red Storm struggle with less-talented opponents, and what will this mean for Big East play?

We've broken out this long piece into sections for your navigating pleasure.

Defense | Offense | Youth

Last year's Red Storm team, piloted by Mike Dunlap in Steve Lavin's absence, was 6-5 at the start of conference play with games against Duke and UCLA to come out of conference. The squad squeaked out a win against Texas Pan-American to close out non-conference play, as the team welcomed Amir Garrett to the fold.

This year, with fewer name-brand teams on the schedule, the Johnnies finished 8-4 out of conference with only conference games left to play. The Johnnies put up their lowest second-half total of the year in the upset against Asheville, as the team welcomed Jamal Branch to the roster.

Amid some fan worries, Steve Lavin's year 2.5 (he barely coached last year while sitting out after prostate cancer surgery) carries on, with a young, inexperienced squad that has many of the same problems as last year's team had.

Last year is not this year, but two months haven't solved all of the team's problems from last season... but some of the issues may have been addressed.

Anti-dunkcraft missiles on defense.

A table of tempo-neutral rate statistics, including two- and three-point shooting, the rate of free throws generated as a percentage of shots taken, turnovers percentage (divided by number of possessions), and percentage of offensive rebounds grabbed.

Opponents 2011
Opponents 2012

On defense, not a lot has changed for St. John's except the shooting percentage inside the arc.

But that's a big deal.

The addition of Chris Obekpa and JaKarr Sampson has given the Johnnies the ability to alter shots inside the arc. The Red Storm, by percentage of shots blocked (and by total blocks) are the best in the nation. And Sir`Dominic Pointer's stealing and shot blocking ability has maintained what looks like a steady level - the team has a wealth of shot-altering riches and highlight-reel plays.

Last year, the two-point shooting by opponents shot up from a field goal percentage of 44.6% to a success rate of 52% inside the arc. Will this year's field goal defense be better in conference play? Will it have less of a jarring correction?

The defense in the paint will need to maintain - and improve upon - its stingy effectiveness, because not much else has changed thus far.

The Johnnies continue to be good at keeping opponents off of the free throw line (which last year remained constant in league play) and have allowed a lower percentage of shots from outside the arc by mixing up defenses.

But the team continues to struggle on the defensive glass despite the new, taller additions. And the Red Storm force turnovers, but not at an elite enough rate to cover up the other deficiencies, which we'll analyze in the next two posts.

Improvement could come as the playing time is sorted out by the staff, but right now, there is work to be done.

The shot selection.

Look! Another table!

St. John's 2011
St. John's 2012

With all of the new talent, and with three-time rookie of the week JaKarr Sampson's scoring, one might think that St. John's would be better offensively.

There are improvements - despite not playing with a facilitating point guard, the Red Storm are turning the ball over even less. And the team is even shooting better from outside the arc than they did last year in November and December.

But generating points is currently a hit-or-miss operation, in large part because of the kinds of shots the Red Storm take.

And so, one more table. Taking data from play-by-play data (which can depend on the shot-categorizing skills of the scorekeeper in the live moment during the game, so small grains of salt apply), a look at the Johnnies' distribution of shot attempts.

2 PT Category
St. John's 2011
St. John's 2012
%Shots at Rim
FG% at Rim
%Shots 2pt Jumpers
FG% 2pt Jumpers

We've written about this before, the issue has come up in comments, and Brandon Tierney alluded to it during his color commentary of the St. John's/ Asheville game.

The shot selection is not ideal.

Generally, basketball teams will distribute their shot attempts fairly evenly between shots at the rim (dunks/ layups/ tip-ins), jump shots inside the arc, and three-pointers.

Purists who remember the 70s may decry the loss of the mid-range jump shot, it is not the wisest/ most efficient shot. It's good. it's a tool. But it cannot be a team's only tool. This Basketball Prospectus article is some essential reading on the subject, and the upside is this: if a player can hit a 17-footer, why not step back and hit a 20-footer?

In the case of St. John's, both Phil Greene IV and JaKarr Sampson have been guilty of taking shots at 18 feet - sometimes with a foot on the line. They've made some of those shots, but each of those attempts is an opportunity -specifically a possible point - given away.

(Chris Obekpa has also taken 63% of his shots from away from the rim; but has been less effective offensively all over the floor.)

Taking long jumpers in the first half of a 35 second shot may introduce the element of surprise/ offensive aggressiveness, but it does not involve teammates, move the defense, or get the ball deep into the paint, where players tend to connect on two-pointers at a far higher success rate.

These aren't shots at the end of the shot clock; they're choices made in transition, or after two passes in the halfcourt. Of the three, only Sampson is getting those shots off of assists; Harrison and Phil Greene are shooting only 13% and 9%, respectively of those shots off of a teammate's pass.

In numerical form - right now, Harrison/ Sampson/ Greene are shooting 42%/ 46%/ 41% on two-point jumpers - which is excellent in the college game. But the trio shoots 79%/ 72%/ 80% at the rim.

The players' percentages at the rim would go down if they kept driving in transition.

But the percentages wouldn't go down to 46%. Shots at the basket are simply more efficient. And efficiency means more points, assuming the shot attempts can be obtained without an increase in turnovers.

Shots at the rim have the added advantage of being more likely to draw fouls... which are also worth points at the free throw line, where St. John's has not gotten to as often as last year with the interior-focused Maurice Harkless and God`sGift Achiuwa.


Last season, the Red Storm roster returned one bit player (Malik Stith) who knew his way around Taffner Fieldhouse.

This year, the Red Storm squad has actual sophomores. The team came into the season with four players who logged more than 950 minutes (just under 30 minutes per game) and a player who averaged 27 once he was eligible in Amir Garrett.

That sounds like experience. But with the scoring talent of JaKarr Sampson and the shot-blocking acumen of Chris Obekpa demanding minutes on the floor the team is, by years in the system weighted by minutes played, almost as young as last year.

Per, the younger teams in the country are 2-9 Northen Illinois, struggling 7-5 Texas, and 2-8 Dartmouth.

Boston College (a soft 7-5), Kentucky (8-3 and out of the AP national rankings), Wake Forest (6-5), and Michigan (12-0) are other major conference teams averaging under a year of experience on their roster (again, weighted by minutes played).

Steve Lavin knows his team is young and learning.

"School is in session every day with this group," he said. "I came into the year knowing this. You know as a coach, when you’ve been in this business that when you have that degree of youth, it’s going to be a challenge, but one that you want. I love their attitude and I love their upside."

There is a lot of upside on the team, and the squad at the end of the year won't look the same as it does now. Jamal Branch (adding cohesion on the floor) and Marc-Antoine Bourgault (adding spacing and three-pointers) are getting more time, and experience leads to player breakthroughs.

The completed non-conference season isn't as much as disappointment as it was a learning experience. Still, the losses - and even the close wins - exposed the flaws of inconsistency, shot choice, and the inability to rebound against Division I opponents.

Reaching the NCAA Tournament may be a long stretch - it's not the time to start looking at RPI ratings - but Lavin's teams generally have improved over the course of the season. His fluctuating roster has method to the madness; he liked to reward players for hard work in practice and prepare the bench for extended action at the drop of a hat while at UCLA, and the tradition continues in Queens.

The St. John's staff have a lot of training to do in order to get the team to rise from the bottom half of the Big East, at a tumultuous time in the college basketball business where the program needs to bring fans back to the fold.

Later this weekend, we will take a look at the frontcourt and backcourt of the Red Storm - keep checking in with the Rumble.

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