St. John’s trips up to Connecticut to face Jim Calhoun’s Huskies on Wednesday. A win in the Huskies’ tough environment would be a jumpstart to the season. But Connecticut, on a three-game losing streak and coming off of a loss to the University of Michigan Wolverines, will look to get right against the Red Storm.
As always, the Huskies are known for their stellar interior defense and their ability to block shots. Even without Thabeet, the team has cobbled together a number of good shotblockers to intimidate players coming inside. Freshman Alex Oriakhi, senior Gavin Edwards lead the interior defensive effort with shot blocking help from Stanley Robinson and now Ater Majok along the front line. The Huskies play fast, running from end to end off of misses to take advantage of mismatches and their athleticism.
But as I have seen them, they seem much less effective off of opponents’ makes; they are worse in slower-paced games, and sometimes struggle to get good shots in the halfcourt. They would rather not take three-point attempts, ranking near the bottom of Division I in 3-point attempts as a percentage of all field goals (19.1%). Defensive stops and athletic ability have gotten them far, but this is clearly not one of the best Connecticut teams of Jim Calhoun’s era; they could rebound much better on the offensive end, the secondary players could score more efficiently, and the team has some moments where the basketball IQ just seems low.
But make no mistake about it, Connecticut has had a tougher out of conference schedule AND a tougher recent schedule. They will be looking to run out their frustrations on the Red Storm. Can St. John’s send the Husky season into a real tailspin with the first win over the Huskies since February of 2002?
Tip Off: 7:00 PM, Wednesday, January 20
Location: XL Center (Hartford, CT)
TV: SNY / ESPN 360
Radio: Bloomberg 1130
St. John’s (12-5, 2-3)
3 PG Malik Boothe JR 5’9 188: 4.6 ppg* 2.3 rpg* 2.3 apg
23 G Paris Horne JR 6’3 191: 8.6 ppg* 3 rpg* 39.3% 3PT
1 G-F DJ Kennedy JR 6’5 215: 15.4 ppg* 6.5 rpg* 3.5 apg* 37.1% 3PT
5 F Sean Evans JR 6’8 255: 6.9 ppg* 6.7 rpg
15 F-C Dele Coker JR 6’10 252: 2.3 ppg* 2.2 rpg* 1.5 bpg* 65.2% FG
32 F Justin Brownlee JR 6′7 232: 22.6 mpg* 8.3 ppg* 5.9 rpg* 1.1 spg
12 G Dwight Hardy JR 6′2 187: 22.8 mpg* 11.4 ppg* 41.1% 3PT
24 F Justin Burrell JR 6’8 235: 17.6 mpg* 5.3 ppg* 2.8 rpg* 54.2% FG
31 PG Malik Stith FR 5′11 185: 12.6 mpg* 2.4 ppg* 1.4 apg
2 G-F Anthony Mason Jr. SR 6′7 210: 16 mpg* 4.7 ppg* 4.3 rpg* 57.1% FG
St. John’s is an enigma. The team had stretches of poor offensive and defensive performances in their Big East losses, but it’s hard to pinpoint a single factor that has led them astray. The team simply needs to play better basketball and perhaps relocate a go-to scorer. Burrell had a nice performance against DePaul, and Anthony Mason Jr. is rounding into shape. Both performances are encouraging results. An ugly home win against a sloppy Cincy and a win against a team that is clearly a cut below the rest of the Big East in DePaul does not give guidance about where improvement could come from with this team.In both games, though, the free throws have been a topic of postgame conversation. Rightfully so. Continuing to leave points at the free throw line will keep St. John’s from winning a close game this season, as it almost did against Cincy.
The team’s calling card has been interior defense. Even without height, the Red Storm manage to disrupt shooting and the opponents’ halfcourt passing. They have been decent at maintaining control of the ball for the most part, and rebound decently, though they could stand to have more dominating performances, especially on the defensive glass. The rotation and starting lineup continue to be in flux; Dele Coker got the start against DePaul, so I will list him as starter.
Connecticut (11-6, 2-3)
15 PG Kemba Walker SO 6’1 172: 12.7 ppg* 5.8 apg* 4 rpg* 1.8 spg* 77.4% FT
11 G Jerome Dyson SR 6’3 190: 18.6 ppg* 5.1 apg* 5 rpg* 1.5 spg* 7.6 FT Att/ g
21 F Stanley Robinson SR 6’9 220: 16.9 ppg* 7.2 rpg* 1.4 bpg* 42.9% 3PT
33 F Gavin Edwards SR 6’10 230: 10.8 ppg* 6.4 rpg* 2.7 bpg* 66.7% FG
34 F-C Alex Oriakhi FR 6’9 240: 5.8 ppg* 8.9 rpg* 2.3 bpg
5 F Ater Majok FR 6’11 233: 13.1 mpg* 2.1 ppg* 2.4 rpg* 1.3 bpg
4 G-F Jamal Coombs-McDaniel FR 6’7 210: 12.1 mpg* 3.8 ppg*1.4 rpg
2 G Donnell Beverly JR 6’4 190: 9.1 mpg* 1.1 ppg* 1.2 apg
36 C Charles Okwandu JR 7’0 255: 6.7 mpg* 1.3 ppg* 1.4 rpg* .5 bpg
I’m probably overstating it but Gavin Edwards is Jim Calhoun’s most fundamentally sound big man in years. It’s not that he’s not athletic; but he’s not so incredibly athletic/ tall that he can just get his own shot or dunk over people. But he is unbelievably efficient, scoring on 67% of his shot attempts, getting to the free throw line. It’s good because he’s not an elite rebounder, unlike earlier U Conn forwards. He is a very good position defender, blocking drives; and he blocks shots like a U Conn big man should. Interestingly, despite playing 30+ minutes a game, he’s only started 3 times. Since I am not sure who they will start, I will add him to the opening lineup.
Kemba Walker, meanwhile, has found himself in a bit of a pickle with respect to his prospects for playing on the next level. Some- myself included – thought this might be his last year at U Conn. His quickness is still elite, and his passing is inspired. But his turnovers are a bit high and his shot – inside the arc – has been mediocre. At 6’1, quick and slight, he will need to convert in the lane. He has been great at getting to the line, though, and converting. Also at guard, Jerome Dyson’s had a great year. Dyson’s ability to play the point for stretches gives Kemba Walker bits of rest , and gives the team two creators on the floor. He takes a lot of shots, and also earns a lot of attempts at the free throw line, where he hits 70%. His three-point shooting is mediocre at 30%.
Stanley Robinson’s game has really blossomed in a way that’s unreal. It’s like the light turned on for him – he is hitting from the outside but scoring in the paint, not fouling at ALL, blocking shots, and scoring. With the exception of assists, he’s been a stat sheet stuffer, converting opportunities created by Dyson + Walker.
I mention the deep bench in this preview because a team that’s lost 3 in a row will likely look to play some different guys in extended roles. After the 4 players mentioned above, the U Conn staff has been searching for some depth and impact in the rotation. Alex Oriakhi has done well in concentrating on rebounding and shot blocking. Meanwhile, Ater Majok can play, but hasn’t been aggressive on offense at all.
Keys to the Game
Slow Pace. Connecticut loves to run teams into submission by grabbing rebounds and racing up court. St John’s players know this from experience, the numbing feeling of watching a game get out of control as the opponent dunks, draws fouls, and generally puts foot to throat. Last year, St. John’s managed to slow the game down in parts; they need to do that again, especially to a U Conn team that is vulnerable in the halfcourt.
Turnover Factor. A U Conn game can get away very quickly in a string of turnovers. The Huskies are aggressive in getting at the ball; St. John’s would do themselves a favor by not turning it over, obviously. And generating some miscues from the forwards and the sometimes single-minded guards would be helpful.
Hit Outside Shots. The Huskies are hard to score against inside. St. John’s will get some points in the paint (if they’re smart) and in transition, but to win this game, St. John’s will have to stroke it from the outside. There is a chance that the team will become an incredible interior scoring squad, but past games don’t make that concept likely.
Rebound To The Best of Your Ability. The Red Storm has to box out and minimize the Huskies’ strength on the glass, especially on the offensive end where St. John’s will have second chance opportunities.
Keep Them Out of the Paint. St. John’s has to keep slashing guards Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson out of the paint as best as they can. The two guards can draw fouls when they slice through a defense; both are excellent with the ball (if not always at finishing inside). Walker scored 21 points last year off the bench, driving into the lane repeatedly; that can’t happen again.
Prediction: St. John’s loss, 71-60.
Transplanted New Yorker and now Midwesterner Peter a/k/a Pico writes for the East Coast Bias and the Church of Bracketology and for Johnny Jungle, doing the Calm Before the Storm posts. Pico is also on Twitter, @ECoastBias.