Much like St. John's, it's hard to know just where the Minnesota Golden Gophers really stack up nationally.
Last year, both teams were #1 seeds in the postseason NIT. St. John's bowed out in the first round, while Minnesota won the Tournament in Madison Square Garden over Southern Methodist.
Despite their finishes, the two teams start the season in the same spot - with wins over low-level opponents, but little to mark them as standouts on the national scene.
Neither team is ranked. Both teams have talent. Which team can break through - and can either of them defeat tough Gonzaga on Friday (assuming the Zags win their game tonight in the nightcap)?
The St. John's/ Minnesota game is on tonight at 7:00 PM on ESPNU. A look at some of tonight's storylines and scouting reports:
For St. John's, a chance to prove they are NCAA-worthy
The big story for the Johnnies is how the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament is a chance to gain a resume-building win, one that will resonate with the NCAA Tournament committee.
Despite being 3-0 - the team has struggled against low-level opponents early in the season. Yes, Marquette struggled with NJIT, and Villanova struggled with Lehigh (before knocking off VCU and Michigan in Brooklyn this week).
But the Red Storm have a roster of players who have combined to start hundreds of games, under the same coach. So there is cause for alarm as the Johnnies head into a crucial stretch, and as the Daily News puts it, this is a stretch where the Red Storm can prove what they really are after four years.
But what are these Johnnies to this point? At best, good players who can’t seem to win the big one. At worst, they are overconfident underachievers.
The New York Post also remarked on the lack of results for the senior class.
On a conference call Tuesday morning, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said St. John’s has "one of the best starting fives in the country" and a team whose small lineup and athleticism creates numerous matchup problems to defend. But thus far, it has been a team that has failed to demonstrate that potential in wins over NJIT, LIU Brooklyn and Division II Franklin Pierce, which led St. John’s by seven at halftime. Minnesota also played Franklin Pierce, winning by 52.
Tough words. St. John's has a chance to take that talk and prove it wrong with their small lineup - Chris Obekpa and essentially four guards.
The rest of the Big East has notched big wins - including Butler defeating #5 North Carolina today.
St. John's, expected to help carry the flag for the league, wants to join in the fun by reaching the title game of the NIT Season Tip-Off on Friday night.
Scouting St. John's
The Red Storm have played a short rotation - basically six players handling over 60% of the team's minutes, led by the scoring and effort of D'Angelo Harrison and the guard play of Rysheed Jordan. The guards are accompanied by Jamal Branch, who serves as the "settle down" point guard, and Phil Greene IV who has played as an off-ball guard.
But the backcourt - and the team in general - has struggled shooting the ball, going 10/40 from beyond the arc. Harrison leads the team with 41% shooting outside the arc, including 5/8 against Division II Franklin Pierce.
Sir'Dominic Pointer plays as an undersized power forward, and enjoyed a spectacular night against Long Island University last Wednesday. He supplements the defense of Chris Obekpa, who is blocking 15% of the shots on the floor when he plays. He has also increased his usage rate, becoming a bigger part of the offense.
How much of the things that have worked for St. John's will translate against major conference opponents?
Minnesota is 3-1, with only a loss to Richard Pitino's father's Louisville Cardinals to open a season where their coaching staff want them to aim higher than the NCAA Tournament bubble.
The Cardinals are national championship contenders. The Golden Gophers are not. Still, even against lower-level opponents, the Gophers haven't been without flaws.
Against Franklin Pierce, the Gophers shot 11/15 from beyond the arc.
Against other competition? They've shot 29% from outside the arc. And they've also struggled to draw fouls, while shooting 57% form the line when they get there.
Star Andre Hollins has done his part, nailing over 40% of the team's shots and distributing the ball alongside point guard Deandre Mathieu, a 5'9" pest who has been one of the best at forcing turnovers. Nate Mason and Carlos Morris support those two onm the wings, with Morris taking 25% of the team's shots in a fairly even attack.
Still, Richard Pitino's team has played hard on defense, forcing steals on 28% of opponent possessions. St. John's has one of the lowest turnover rates in the country at 12% of possessions ending in a turnover.
The turnovers - and how well St. John's can hold down hefty senior Maurice Walker, all of 6'10", 250 pounds - will tell the tale. The Gophers try to play inside out when they are not attacking in transition.
And the size isn't limited to Walker. Joey King stands 6'9". Elliott Eliason is 6'11". But Pitino is looking for a player to shine behind starter King at PF - playing the 6'9" Charles Buggs more minutes recently.
Notes, Vegas Odds
SJU is a 2 point favorite - which in betting speak means the teams are very even but St. John's gets a bump for home-court advantage.
Minnesota is without guard Daquein McNeil, arrested for domestic assault and suspended from all team activities. McNeil played 42% of the team's minutes this season, and was to be a major part of the Golden Gophers' attack this season.
- Former St. John's assistant Kimani Young helps on the sidelines as Richard Pitino's main recruiter. For more on his story - and the tragedy that led him to step away from St. John's and return to the New Heights AAU program - read here.