Saturday, January 11th, 2014
When: 1:00 pm Eastern
RPI: Villanova: 5 | St John's: 51
KenPom: Villanova: 5| St John's: 70
Madison Square Garden (Capacity: 18,200)
Where: New York, NY
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: 610 WIP
Odds: Villanova -9
You have to go back to the roaring 20's to find the first time the Wildcats battled St. John's. Villanova stole the opening contest of the 90 years of competition in a 29-23 shootout. Since then, the Red Storm hold the record against their Big East rival, winning 59 and losing 47 of the games. Last year, the Wildcats edged out the Johnnies in an overtime thriller. Ryan Arcidiacono led the way with 32 points on 7-13 from distance, while D'Angelo Harrison topped all scorers with 36 points.
St. John's, like Villanova, entered the 2013-2014 season as one of the question marks of the new look Big East. Many pundits believed that the Red Storm boasted a mixture of experience and an infusion of new talent; all five starters return from last year. Despite the struggle to put the ball in the basket last season, they ranked 14th in the Big East in points per possession, it was assumed that enough of the multitude of talents St. John's offers would be enough to carry the Johnnies to victory.
Not all has gone according to plan. On paper, there seems to be no weaknesses on the Red Storm's roster. Down low, they play Chris Obekpa, who led the country in shots blocked last season at just above four per game, and senior forward Orlando Sanchez. The two stand together to comprise a formidable front-line. On the wings, reigning freshman of the year Jakarr Sampson and Sir'Dominic Pointer use their length and athleticism to wreck havoc on opposing guards. The two average a combined total of more than four blocks/steals per game.
Lastly, highly touted freshman guard Rysheed Jordan was expected to make an immediate impact. The Philadelphia native carried a knack for getting to the rim, absorbing contact, and finishing strong out of high school. To this point in the season, Jordan has yet to make as big of a splash as expected. Opponents can sag against him, as the freshman is only connecting on 14% of his attempts from deep.
St. John's biggest weapon, however, was to be the return of lead guard D'Angelo Harrison. The talented combo-guard was making a serious push for all-Big East consideration before a season ending suspension derailed his momentum. Now, Harrison is back to getting buckets for his team, averaging nearly 18 points a game. Like the past game against Seton Hall and Sterling Gibbs, Tony Chennault and Dylan Ennis must exert an all-out effort to lockdown the explosive guard.
The scoring highlights stop there. Only one other player, Jakarr Sampson, averages more than 10 points a game for the Johnnies. This distribution of points could be attributed to the Red Storm's abundance of talented options. However, the more likely story is less optimistic. Coach Steve Lavin has yet to concoct a formula that effectively meshes the pieces at his disposal into a cohesive unit.
Lavin has attempted to use all motivational strategies in the book. In their latest contest, a 60-77 loss to the Georgetown Hoyas, walk-on Khadim Ndiaye was inserted into the starting lineup as a wake up call to the other St. John's players. For that specific game, the strategy failed. However, against the Wildcats, it could pay dividends. For those of you that saw St. John's play against Syracuse earlier this season, in the raucous Garden, the Johnnies offer a combination of skill and athleticism that few teams in the country can match. When they fire on all cylinders, this is an incredibly dangerous team.
However, perhaps in contrast to Villanova, the Red Storm's parts remain greater than their whole. With struggles defining roles and maintaining spacing across the court, St. John's remains an opponent, albeit a dangerous one, that must be considered under performing. For the Wildcats, it will be imperative to keep their turnovers to a minimum as to neutralize their opponents athleticism in transition. I'm hoping for a big game out of Dylan Ennis. Additionally, it will be interesting to watch the battles on the wings. St. John's players carry more raw athleticism, while the Wildcats have more refined skill sets. Whichever one of these attributes wins out will go a long way in determining the outcome of this contest.
In the end, I predict Villanova wins in a close one, 76-70
As mentioned before, St. John's is coached by Steve Lavin. Before taking the job with the Red Storm, Lavin coached as an assistant at UCLA for five years before acquiring the lead job in 1996. During his time at UCLA, he watched a number of future NBA players walk through his doors, including Trevor Ariza, Matt Barnes, Baron Davis, and Ryan Hollins. After a 10-19 season in 2003, Lavin was fired. In his time between UCLA and St. John's, Lavin spent time in the ESPN broadcasting booth.
A number of former governors have walked away with St. John's Diplomas, including Mario Cuomo, father to current New York governor and St. John's alumnus Andrew Cuomo.
St. John's also is the alma mater of many prominent sports figures. Bob Sheppard, "Voice of the Yankees," graduated in 1932. Do you remember the ESPN show "Stump the Schwab?" Well, the well known sports trivia expert Howie Schwab attended and eventually had his number retired for the Red Storm, despite not participating in athletics while attending the school.