St. John's travels to Nebraska for the penultimate regular season game on Sunday, after taking a loss to DePaul that exposed some weaknesses on the interior. Can the Johnnies return to the promise they showed a few games ago, where they played well enough to beat DePaul and came close to knocking off Seton Hall?
Head coach Chris Mullin knows the task - like all games for this young team - will be difficult. "Creighton will be a really tough game for us," Mullin said. "They're big and have a really good point guard, so we'll regroup [from Thursday's lackluster road loss] and try to give a better effort."
St. John's started Big East play against Greg McDermott's Bluejays, falling in a game at Carnesecca Arena that looked to be a promising chance for a win; since then, the teams have gone in different directions. Now it's Creighton's Senior Day as the Red Storm travel to take on the solid Jays squad.
The tone of the season has been one of steady improvement; can the Red Storm put up a better showing against Creighton than they did against DePaul?
Game Information/ How to watch St. John's at Creighton
Matchup: St. John's (8-21, 1-15) vs. Creighton (17-11, 8-7)
Day/ Time: Sunday, February 28, 2016, 2:30 PM
Location: Omaha, Nebraska - CenturyLink Center, 17,390
Radio: WMCA 570
Twitter: As always, follow @rumbleSBN and @StJohnsBBall for updates.
Creighton has been a decent surprise for the Big east, upending Seton Hall, Xavier, Butler and Georgetown in conference play - a nice set of wins for a team that was picked to finish ninth in the league. But after a pair of losses, the Jays are 8-7 in the Big East, and can finish anywhere between fourth and eighth in the league.
The Bluejays are coming off of a loss to Marquette, a loss where they came back from 15 points down to within a point of the visiting Golden Eagles.
The Bluejays are known for crisp offense, low turnovers, defending without fouling and players who know their role and share the basketball. The team is led by the talent and quickness of Maurice Watson, a transfer from Boston University who stands 5'10" yet scores at a 54% clip inside the arc. He's been the best passer in Big East play by the percentage of his team's field goals he's assisted on, draws fouls, and breaks down defenses.
Watson is complemented by the scoring prowess of big man Geoffrey Groselle, who is excellent at getting to good positions on the low block. Groselle, at seven feet tall, is also a very good rebounder. Forward Cole Huff has an inside-outside game; he rarely turns the ball over and rebounds opponents' misses very well. Wing Isaiah Zierden is the squad's best outside shooter, and doesn't look to score inside.
Within all of this is an interesting secret: the Bluejays are great at getting to the rim, but they struggle to shoot from outside in conference play.
Watson is shooting 28% from beyond the three-point arc. Huff, 29% from the three. Guard James Milliken, 29%. Freshman guard Khyri Thomas: 23%. Backup center Toby Henger: 30%.
Keys to the Game
St. John's has seen some progress from Malik Ellison in Big East play, and big men Kassoum Yakwe, Yankuba Sima and Amar Alibegovic would need to be huge for the Red Storm... as could shooters like Durand Johnson, Ron Mvouika and Federico Mussini, all of whom may be needed to keep pace with the Bluejays.
Defend Groselle. St. John's has to deny Geoffrey Groselle deep touches, and find him when guards like Maurice Watson penetrate the lane - they're looking for Groselle (or Zach Hanson or Toby Henger). In the first game, Groselle found himself receiving passes close enough to feel the net on his hair. St. John's has to make him work a little to score, which is easier said than done against a crisp offensive machine.
Keep Calm and Mullin On. The Red Storm has had a tendency when down by many points to fall into individualistic play on both ends of the ball. The Johnnies don't have shot creators who can justify that style, so they need to stay together, weather runs, and get their shots in rhythm. Communication among the players and intense defense will be key of the Red Storm hope to knock off Creighton.
Bracket Watson. Maurice Watson - and the rest of the Creighton guards - will look to exploit the sometimes-slow-footed Red Storm on the perimeter. The defense has to make sure Watson finds himself driving into walls of players, making him throw more challenging passes.
Prediction: This could get ugly, and Creighton could find their shots. 84-66, Creighton Bluejays