All the New York guys are leaving – they need to find some tough New York players, to be honest with you.
– Daryll “Truck” Bryant, after defeating the Red Storm in Madison Square Garden, 79-60 in February 2010
As New York digs out of the blizzard, the Red Storm get ready to face the West Virginia Mountaineers in both teams’ Big East openers. And what a test it will be for the Red Storm. If you don’t remember last year’s game, you’re probably repressing memories of terrible things you have seen on a basketball court. Make no mistake about it, giving up 57 points in a second half, scoring 27 in that same half, and turning an 11 point halftime lead into a 19 point blowout is a truly disastrous basketball result, with a roster loaded with New York area players,
The seniors should be looking for some measure of revenge against a weaker Mountaineer squad. Weaker than last year’s, at least. The Red Storm bring in the same squad that was crushed in the second half, hoping to find a new result with a new coach.
On top of that, Wednesday’s game starts a grueling stretch of conference games – they start at West Virginia, go to an improved Providence, play at home against Georgetown, who look ready to compete at the top of the conference, at sharpshooting Notre Dame, and home to Syracuse before welcoming the Fighting Irish to New York. That is one rough stretch of conference play. The Red Storm can show the league that they aren’t the previous coaching staff’s Red Storm.
West Virginia (8-2)
West Virginia is 8-2, with wins over Vanderbilt, Duquesne, and Cleveland State, and losses to Miami (FL) and the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The Mountaineers, like last year, are playing a physical brand of basketball, getting to the free throw line and rebounding the offensive glass. It works for them; the shooting isn’t spectacular, especially from outside. And the defense is great on the perimeter, but warning signs abound inside. Opponents are enjoying many trips to the free throw line and many offensive rebounds (13.8 per game).
Leading the Mountaineers in scoring is Casey Mitchell. The shooter – who got to know the bench and the coaching staff very well last year – is thriving as the go-to shooter, stroking it inside the arc and out. Of course, he and Huggins sometimes do not see eye-to-eye; he played 16 and 13 minutes, respectively, against Robert Morris and Duquesne. He is backed up by Dalton Pepper, who is similarly sized and can shoot.
Leading the Mountaineers in minutes and strong offensive rebounds at forward is Mount Vernon’s Kevin Jones. Without his lanky teammates of last year, Jones has been good, but not the great leader one might have guessed him to be. In his starring role, how grabs offensive boards and is efficient inside. His perimeter shooting has been iffy. But he is still a mobile big man who will give the Johnnies trouble inside. Helping out in the paint is John Flowers, who has become a very good undersized rebounder. He is also the team’s leading shot blocker and gets to the free throw line with some frequency. They are frequently backed up by Cam Thoroughman, a Huggins-esque beast who grabs offensive rebounds and avoids shooting; he has a lot of assists for a big man.
Also in the paint is the “Istan-Bull,” Deniz Kilicli, whose penchant for hackery keeps him on the bench – along with some sloppiness in knowing what to do with the basketball. He takes a lot of shots while on the court, mixed with turnovers; and his shots don’t go in as often as they should for someone of his size. Staten Island’s Danny Jennings also gets some time.
Handling the ball will be Brooklyn’s Daryll “Truck” Bryant and Joe Mazzulla. Both guards are very good passers whose turnover numbers speak to occasional over-aggression. That aggression gets both to the free throw line, so it’s not all bad for them. Truck likes to shoot, even when sometimes he shouldn’t; Mazulla is far more judicious with his shot taking.
Keys to the Game
Keep them From Second Shots. Coach Bob Huggins’ teams attack the offensive glass with strength and abandon. They are incredibly physical. If St. John’s can clear their misses by grabbing defensive rebounds, they will cut down on the Mountaineers’ scoring.
Maintain Turnover Ratio. The Red Storm have done a very good job at holding on to the ball and forcing turnovers. Can the team continue to win the turnover battle? If so, the Johnnies stand a chance for some surprise wins. Against West Virginia – like against other opponents – St. John’s can’t afford to give up possible shots.
Attack and Draw Fouls. The Mountaineers’ defense can be hard to figure out – fundamentally sound, protective of the interior, and disruptive. The Red Storm offense will find it difficult to run crisp sets; they will need to outfight West Virginia and play a physical style of basketball. The Mountaineers also commit a good number of fouls. St. John’s needs to get to the free throw line… and hit their shots.
Cover Casey Mitchell. Mitchell is the team’s most dangerous offensive player, drawing fouls, driving, and hitting outside jumpers. St. John’s has struggled to cover perimeter shooters in the past. The team has to make a point to keep a hand in Mitchell’s face at all times and keep him from getting the ball.
Find a Way to Run/ Impose Pace. West Virginia plays a more controlled pace than St. John’s; they set up their defense and outwork their opponents, wear them down with physical defense. But if St. John’s can get some points on the run, they can gain control of the game – and score efficiently.
Prediction: St. John’s loses a competitive game, 71-66.