Another big loss to Creighton followed up with an overtime game on the road, things look like deja vu a bit on the Main Line, and surely fans are hoping for some of that against St. John's. The Wildcats took the first end of this home-and-home 74-67 at Madison Square Garden.
Now, with the Johnnies surging and winning six in a row as well as nine of their last ten, this is a different look from the team that Villanova saw in Manhattan. What can the 'Cats expect at the Pavilion this weekend? Norman (Pico) from SB Nation's Rumble in the Garden answered some questions to help us out (with bonus coverage of the steamy race at the top of the Division III UAA).
We answered some questions from Rumble as well, that you can read over there.
What has gotten into St. John's lately that has them knocking on the NCAA bubble?
Better defense, with the Red Storm going man-to-man more often, using quick feet and quick hands to pester defenders. Better confidence, with JaKarr Sampson able to hit those low-ish percentage long two-point shots he takes. Rysheed Jordan's solid play and ability to get into the paint and make passes that make JaKarr Sampson and Chris Obekpa better.
How bad is the loss of Chris Obekpa for two weeks for the Johnnies?
We'll know during the Villanova game. The loss means the team has less depth inside. Sure, Obekpa's known for his shot blocking. But the team has a number of shot blockers who can protect the rim. The real loss might be offensively; Obekpa has become a relative force in the paint, active around the rim and looking for passes and putbacks. The Johnnies shot selection outside of Obekpa tends to drift from the basket to the first open shot. Will they get jump shot happy against Nova's length and defense?
How did St. John's manage a win over Creighton where Villanova couldn't? What is the secret for holding the Jays scoring in the 60s?
Nathan's hot dogs.
It's really the ability to extend the defense and be disruptive. The Johnnies have enough length to make Doug McDermott work for his shots - not just receive a pass in the right position to take a shot or back down a defender. And the defense affected the Creighton guards as well; their timing was off.
Now that the Johnnies are back in the picture for an NCAA bid, what do you think the ceiling is for this team?
The ceiling could be a Big East Tournament championship. I mean, any team's ceiling is a national championship, so we can go with that. Realistically, I think the Johnnies - provided there are no more injuries and no team comes up with a magic formula to confuse them - can be a Sweet Sixteen team.
Nearing the end of season-one of the new Big East, how do you think the league is working out? Do you buy Ken Pomeroy's claim that the conference is comparable to the old Big East?
The league itself is good. Scheduling, mobile app options need some work so fans can actually see the entire game (did the first 40 minutes of St. John's/ Butler even happen?). I am looking at Pomeroy's claim now and I'm a little surprised. I think that's not true. The league has teams that hoops connoisseurs can love in Creighton and Villanova, but not the Big Names of Louisville and Syracuse (and maybe Pitt). The bad programs would weigh the league down, but does that matter in a conference? People's perceptions on a conference's strength is focused on the top of the league and the legit challengers. By Pomeroy's numbers, St. John's is the only real challenger to Nova/ Creighton. The new configuration has less of a filthy bottom, but also less of a creamy middle.
Bonus question: Can WashU go undefeated in UAA play? Are they a legitimate contender in the DIII Tourney?
Yes, and yes. Well, yes and I'm not sure. I haven't seen enough of the Bears, but I think they need to be more dominant for longer on defense and not let teams hang on for a half. They're also a bit paint-oriented and mechanical, and one wonders if a dominant D-III big man could end their season.