The Villanova Wildcats survived a second half meltdown at Providence to remain undefeated in conference play, and now look to move to 3-0 in the Big East when they face the St. John’s Red Storm at the Pavilion on Tuesday night.
In his fourth season leading the Johnie's, head coach Chris Mullin has his best team, and possibly the best St. John’s team in Kenpom’s database (since 2002). The Red Storm were one of the last undefeated teams in the country, and are 14-1 on the season with the lone loss coming to Seton Hall on the road and with some referee controversy. That record might be a bit inflated, however, as St. John’s non conference schedule is ranked 338th in the country per Kenpom. This season is shaping up to be the Red Storm’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2015 when they lost to San Diego St. in the first round.
One of the favorites for Big East Player of the Year, the Junior from Brooklyn, New York is the unquestioned leader for the Red Storm. Ponds is a 6’1” do-everything guard. He averages 20.4 points to go with 6 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.7 steals while only turning the ball over 2.1 times per game. The guard has improved his efficiency a great deal, as he is shooting a career best 56.7% from two point range and 40.5% from beyond the arc.
His 126.3 offensive rating per Kenpom is another example of his huge leap, as it is more than twenty points higher than his offensive rating last season. He also has made strides defensively, evidenced by his nearly three steals per game. His steal percentage of 4.4% is 27th in the country per Kenpom. Stopping Ponds will be nearly impossible but containing him in any way would be huge for the Wildcats.
Chris Mullin’s most played lineup, by far, is a small ball group with 6’7” Michigan State transfer Marvin Clark playing center. Per Kenpom, that lineup plays 32.4% of the minutes, while no other five man combination plays more than 5% of the minutes. Clark is having a solid season, averaging 13.1 points and 5.2 rebounds. Most importantly, he is shooting 42% from three.
Villanova’s Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree is certainly a solid defender, but he will have a tough time chasing Clark around the perimeter. Roundtree has had a tough last two games, combining for only five points and grabbing only seven rebounds. As a result, head coach Jay Wright might run with a smaller lineup to match St. John’s, replacing Cosby-Roundtree with Jermaine Samuels. After playing a small role his freshmen season and seeing a difficult start to his sophomore season, Samuels has developed a role as a backup big (besides a DNP against DePaul) since his breakout game against Temple.
This game will be a very big contrast in styles. Villanova is 346th in the country in adjusted tempo, while St. John’s is 45th. The Wildcats will unquestionably attempt to slow down the game and minimize fast break opportunities for the Red Storm. If this game does turn into a bit of a track meet, it will be interesting to see if Wright adjusts.
In addition to more Jermaine Samuels, Wright could run with more Jahvon Quinerly in a game that will feature more fast breaks. Wright could go with a three guard set featuring Collin Gillespie, Phil Booth, and Quinerly. In a game like this, it is possible that lineup minimizes turnovers and controls the game more, without giving up a size advantage.
Although St. John’s is one of the better teams in the Big East, it will be important for Villanova to hold serve at home to both ensure making the NCAA Tournament, and to gain favorable seeding.