Zigging the Zags, the trendy upset pick

Finally, St. John’s has a ticket to college basketball’s great spectacle, the NCAA Tournament. The getting there was fraught with challenge, as we know, but that hot month of February solidified the Red Storm’s chances to get into the NCAA Tournament.

And then… the D.J. Kennedy injury struck. A torn ACL in the Big East Tournament. A tear that tears tenuous dreams. A tear that crushes a team…

And a tear that inspires. The players and fans have rallied behind the concept of Do It For DJ. The team is a motivated giant-killer already, and now they have more motivation. One more, two more, maybe more games for D.J. Kennedy and the senior class that finally came together under a new coach. And now, without Kennedy, the team is being counted out. There are some eager beavers picking Gonzaga in the first round if you Google “Gonzaga Upset Pick“, and those links don’t include the more statsitically-oriented writers like Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn, or Nate Silver on his New York Times bracket predictions.

There are a lot of haters out there. And Gonzaga is the trendy upset pick.

Spread the word, because if there is one thing St. John’s has done this year it is to make predictions invalid. The Johnnies thrive on being underdogs, the under-recruited, under-regarded, New York City kids with a chip on their shoulder the size of Flushing Meadows Park. The team has lost some games to good-shooting teams that protect the ball. But beyond that? They have pulled wins out of their backsides.

This team is almost better when the world picks against them.

How are they going to Do It For DJ? …Keep reading.


St. John’s Profile

  • 21-11, 12-6 Big East Conference (tied for 3rd, lost in 3rd round of conference tournament)
  • Losses to St. Mary’s, St. Bonaventure, Fordham, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Louisville, Cincinnati, Georgeown, UCLA, Seton Hall, Syracuse
  • Notable wins: Duke, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Georgetown, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Marquette, Villanova
  • Coach: Steve Lavin (166-88, 11-6 in NCAA Tournament)
Dwight Hardy3234.
Justin Brownlee3230.
D.J. Kennedy3228.710.
Paris Horne3227.
Justin Burrell3220.
Dwayne Polee Jr.3214.
Malik Boothe3118.
Sean Evans3011.
Malik Stith2512.
Cameron Edison51.
Quincy Roberts47.
Dele Coker2160.
Kevin Clark51.
Jamal White210.

The Red Storm are sans D.J. Kennedy.

They need a glue guy. They’ve lost the pick off man in the pressure defense, the late-game free throw shooter, the deep corner jump shooter, and the team’s best and most consistent defensive rebounder. I wrote about how various players could replace D.J. Kennedy’s production; but the upshot of all of this is that Kennedy is hard to replace. And whoever replaces him won’t have the varied skills that Kennedy has, and will likely be a less efficient player offensively… and far less clutch at the free throw line.

But St. John’s has beaten the giants of the game. They’ve won a neutral site championship (albeit against some mediocre teams). They’ve played on the west coast three times this year, so they’re used to long travel. This is what Steve Lavin prepared them for, and Lavin’s history with UCLA demonstrates an ability to win in the first rounds of the Tournament.

St. John’s has some depth to use against the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Sean Evans has emerged as a solid option off of the bench, and he is strong. His ability to use his dribble intelligently has increased, giving a nice complement to Justin Burrell’s power game in the post. Playing Evans and Burrell together allows Justin Brownlee to play at the small forward position, where his game is more natural. In recent weeks he’s looked best offensively when give the ability to score in space or off of a snaking dribble. If Dwayne Polee can make some plays defensively and stay on the court, he provides a really nice replacement to some of what Kennedy brought to the table.

And Dwight Hardy’s game is key. Can he lead the team without costly turnovers? Can he score on Gonzaga’s tall defenders? Can he find open guys like Paris Horne, or get open when Malik Boothe is on the floor?

Gonzaga profile

  • 24-9, 11-3 West Coast Conference – won conference tournament
  • Losses to San Diego State, Kansas State, #21 Illinois, Washington State, #23 Notre Dame, Santa Clara (road), San Francisco (road), #24 St. Mary’s
  • Notable wins: 2x St. Mary’s, Xavier, Marquette
  • Coach: Mark Few (314-81, 12-11 in NCAA Tournament)
Steven Gray416'5205SR31.313.
Elias Harris206'7245SO25.912.
Robert Sacre07'1260JR25.712.
Demetri Goodson35'11175JR22.
Marquise Carter26'4178JR18.
Mangisto Arop106'6208SO16.
David Stockton115'10152FR15.
Sam Dower356'9248FR14.
Kelly Olynyk137'1238SO13.
Mathis Monninghoff226'7189FR13.
Mathis Keita256'5190FR9.
Mike Hart306'6206SO50.

With players from Germany, France, and Canada, the Zags are a true international squad. In fact, three players are from Canada – Robert Sacre, Kelly Olynyk, and Mangisto Arop. With two players from Washington State, and one from Minnesota, they’re not America’s team, they’re the team of the Northern Woods.

They already play at altitude with Spokane being a half mile up, so playing in Denver – which can get players and regular people gassed, if you’ve never been there – shouldn’t be as much of a problem as it is for the Red Storm, who travel 1700 miles and 1 mile in elevation.

The Zags are anchored by the mobile 7-foot center Robert Sacre. He’s athletic enough to block a lot of shots, gets to offensive rebounds, and is an 83% shooter at the line – and he gets a lot of free throw attempts. This is probably the biggest worry for the Johnnies. If the referees allow for physical play, St. John’s should be able to body him up; he weighs less than many of the Big East centers the team has faced. But he will turn the ball over on occasion.

But forward Elias Harris is no slouch. He likely has the most NBA-ready abilities; he can score off the dribble and has some good moves. He’s a good defensive rebounder, gets to the line, and can score inside the arc very well. Also at forward/ center is a whole lot of height. Kelly Olynyk looks gawky but he can score the ball inside and outside the arc, rebounding the defensive end as well. Sam Dower is a freshman with a nice looking mid-range jump shot. And he’s an extreme lefty; guard him to shoot over the right shoulder.

Marquise Carter is a long defender and had some really nice games down the stretch for Gonzaga; he’s a top thief of the ball and can hit his jumpshot with regularity. He even passes a bit. Steven Gray is one of the team’s guards, and he’ll take a number of three-pointers in the game. He is tall (the one with the dreds), and fairly athletic; he can serve as a lead guard at times.

Which is good, because the starting lead guard, Demitri Goodson, has lost a lot of time to John Stockton’s son David. Goodson is a little turnover-prone, and his shooting range is lacking; Stockton only shoots from the outside, but is an adept passer, as one could guess. He’s… well, he makes Malik Boothe look imposing. But he has spurred the team on to a winning streak

Keys to the Game

Press on, Storm. The Johnnies have to apply lots of pressure on the Bulldogs; they’re not the best ballhandlers out there, though they’re not terrible, but the Red Storm’s pressure has affected many good teams. The Johnnies need to force turnovers and limit easy touches/ easy looks for the Zags.

Hardy heat. Dwight Hardy needs to have a good, efficient scoring game. Lots of points, lots of free throws, and some timely treys. I see him scoring a number of points off of two-man action with Brownlee.

Defend Sacre and Harris without fouling. Both Robert Sacre and Elias Harris can be real loads to handle, and the Red Storm’s depth has just dwindled all year; they can’t afford to have two players unavailable in the first half, or to play extended minutes with one of their main rotation players fouled out in the second. Both Harris and Sacre will hit their shots at the line; St. John’s has to defend these highly-skilled players without enough physical contact to draw the refs’ attention (but a little push and shove here and there would be a good thing).

Rocky Mountain Brownlee. Justin Brownlee needs to take his (likely) newfound role and score some points with his versatile game. Preferably at the hoop. Preferably with some foul shots tacked on to the end. Preferably not with uncontested jumpshots with 25 seconds left on the shot clock from the top of the key for no reason (aka the BROWNLEE SHOT).

The x-factor. Will it be Paris Horne finally getting out in transition again for dunks and spotting up for deep jumpers? With Dwayne Polee be unleashed? Will Malik Boothe carve the Zags up like a Washington apple? One of these three has to be the x-factor in this game.

Prediction: Well, all year, I think the next game is the one St. John’s will lose. I think teams will have caught up to the Red Storm. So with a very obvious WINK, and continuing what’s become a superstition for me, I say Gonzaga wins, 71-68. WINK.

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