After a two-year hiatus, it's only fitting that St. John's and Duke will resume their yearly mini-rivalry once again with history on the line Sunday afternoon in the World's Most Famous Arena.
As most of the world is aware of by now, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski will be going for win number 1,000 overall when his 5th-ranked Blue Devils take the Garden floor on Sunday against the 13-5 Red Storm. But for Steve Lavin's bunch, the goal is to not surrender to history without at least putting up a good fight.
"If you can't get hyped up for this game then you shouldn't be playing basketball," D`Angelo Harrison said Friday. "Duke vs. St. John's is always going to be a big game and the fact that coach Krzyzewski is going for 1,000 wins is in the back of your head. You just have to keep going and perform at a high level."
While this game is a shot at history for Duke and their historic head coach, it also presents an opportunity unlike any other for St. John's this season. A win over the number five team in the nation in a game of this magnitude would do wonders for the Johnnies tournament resume heading into March.
But obviously trying to beat both Duke and college basketball history is a task easier said than done.
How to Watch/Listen
This will be the first St. John's game nationally televised on Fox this season, and it will tip-off at 2:00 P.M. with Gus Johnson, Jim Jackson, and Molly McGrath calling the action. The radio broadcast can also be heard on 570 AM (WMCA).
St. John's is currently a six-point underdog to number five Duke.
Scouting St. John's
The Red Storm come into this one with a 13-5 overall record and 2-4 record in the Big East so far, which has them in seventh place in the conference. While they have seen their share of struggles in Big East play, they did win their last game on Wednesday night against Marquette, 60-57.
With games against a weak Creighton team and a Providence team who they have already beaten coming up, a win against Duke would not only be a huge resume booster for the Johnnies, but it would also give them a chance to pile up a few wins in a row.
The Red Storm's leading scorer remains D`Angelo Harrison, although the senior's points per game average has dipped to under 20 per game after he has put up back-to-back 11 point performances in his last two outings. The normally sharpshooting Harrison has shot just 5-28 from the field including a disheartening 3-14 from 3-point range in his last two.
Many have credited injuries as the source of this poor shooting, and watching Harrison play over the past week, that seems to be the case. Nonetheless, he is of course fully expected by Lavin to be on the court for tip-off Sunday. "D`Angelo is a player who has shown the ability to bounce back quickly, absorb a hit, and get to the other side of an injury to compete at a high level," Lavin said on Friday.
With Harrison's limited recent scoring performances, Rysheed Jordan has taken over that role in a way, as he's scored 17 and 15 points in the Johnnies last two games, both of which were tied for the team lead. Jordan has also shot an impressive 10-22 from the field over the last two, and is beginning to show moments of maturity that could take him to the next step both at the collegiate and pro level.
If Harrison is once again limited on Sunday, the Red Storm can only hope for big performances from Jordan along with Phil Greene IV, and Chris Obekpa/Sir`Dominic Pointer on the boards to lead them to victory. Obekpa and Pointer were able to grab 22 of the 39 St. John's rebounds against Marquette on Wednesday night, but they will have much bigger challenge, both literally and figuratively, against Duke.
While Marquette ranks last in the Big East in rebounding, the Blue Devils are just outside the top 50 in the nation. And while Marquette features just one player standing above 6'7", Duke brings four such players to the table on Sunday, including superb freshman Jahlil Okafor.
The 16-2 Blue Devils opened up the season with 14 straight wins, some of which against Power 5 teams such as Michigan State, Stanford, at Wisconsin, and against the defending champion Uconn Huskies. After dropping two straight ACC games seemingly out of nowhere, they have righted the ship with two straight wins at Louisville and against Pittsburgh, and are now ranked number five in the nation.
Following this one, they'll face a tough stretch of back-to-back games on the road against number eight Notre Dame and 2nd-ranked Virginia.
Duke averages just under 82 points per game, good for 11th in the nation, and they shoot a staggering 50 percent from the field as a team, which has them at 6th in the nation. They are led in both scoring and rebounding by top freshman Jahlil Okafor, who has cemented himself as one of the best big men in the nation all while improving upon his already skyrocketing draft stock.
While only playing just under 30 minutes per game, Okafor has still been able to put up impressive numbers of 18.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, and he has scored in double figures in every game that he has put on a Duke uniform.
But Okafor gets plenty of help leading the Blue Devils, namely from fellow freshman Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. The two combine for roughly 20 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists per game, and each of them shoots over 40 percent from the field.
And while Duke does have a plethora of talented freshman who have propelled them to their 16-2 start, they also do have a good amount of leadership coming from their upperclassmen. Senior Quinn Cook is second on the team with 14.2 points per game, while junior Amile Jefferson is second on the team with 7.7 rebounds per game, and junior Rasheed Sulaimon averages just under eight points about 20 minutes per game.
As is customary for most Duke teams under Coach K, the Blue Devils shoot the ball well from 3-point range at 37% as a team. That should play into Duke's favor on Sunday when they take on a St. John's team that has struggled to defend the 3 for much of this season.
St. John's Keys to the Game
To pull off a miraculous win on Sunday at the Garden, St. John's will need to play an almost perfect game. But there are no guarantees in sports, especially in college basketball, so here's what will have to go right for the Johnnies in order for them to deny history.
Have Harrison be himself again. Let's make one thing clear, even with a fully healthy D`Angelo Harrison on the court Sunday scoring his usual 20-plus points, St. John's would still have trouble taking down the mighty Blue Devils. But if Harrison is limited in any way on Sunday, the Red Storm can all but kiss their chances goodbye.
With Harrison's subpar performances over the last two, St. John's has lost in overtime to DePaul and barely squeaked out a win over Marquette, and if he is not himself Sunday things definitely won't be that close. Duke is not a lock down defensive team, and Harrison will certainly get his fair share of shots up, but if there is any hope for an upset, a majority of those shots will have to fall.
Don't get bullied on the boards. Jahlil Okafor comes into the Garden as one of the best rebounders in the nation, and that spells nothing but trouble for a team that has struggled with their rebounding over the past few weeks.
While it's inaccurate to say that that Okafor could beat up both Chris Obekpa and Sir`Dominic Pointer on the boards by himself, when you couple him with Amile Jefferson and Justise Winslow, it's clear that Duke has the advantage in the rebounding department. So the goal for Obekpa and Pointer should be to stay out of foul trouble and keep things close on the boards.
If either of them want to play at the next level one year from now, this is the type of talent that they'll be seeing a majority of nights. Now it's time for them to step up. And it will clearly not be a solo effort for Obekpa on Okafor, as Lavin said Friday, "for this particular game, it won't be a scenario where we say ‘you got him.' We'll give a variety of looks to try and keep Duke off balance."
Limit Duke's 3-point shooting. As reference earlier, St. John's has struggled to defend the 3-point shot for much of this season, and it has come back to bite them on a number of occasions.
DePaul's hot shooting from downtown was the main reason why they were able to wipe out an 11-point second half deficit and defeat the Red Storm last Sunday, while Matt Carlino's barrage of second half 3's nearly sunk the Johnnies on Wednesday. If they are going to even keep this game competitive tomorrow, St. John's will need to keep Duke's 3-point shooters contained.
The Blue Devils were able to hit 11 of their 23 3's in Monday's victory over Pittsburgh, and if that performance is replicated tomorrow, it could get ugly.
In a game where you'd be hard-pressed to find one person picking them to win, St. John's is basically playing with house money tomorrow. A win gives them a huge boost to their tournament resume and to their confidence going forward, while a loss would make them apart of history.
Either way, Red Storm players are treating this one like any other game, which is exactly what they should be doing. "We just want to win this game and go on to the next one," said Harrison.
St. John's hangs with Duke for a majority of the game, but the Blue Devils depth and strong shooting are just too much for them in the end, and they fall 78-70 as Coach K gets win number 1,000.
What's your score prediction?