After wrapping up non-conference play with a share of the Big 5 title, things will ramp up for the Villanova Wildcats, as they finally begin conference play.
The Wildcats’ (6-5) four-game winning streak will be put to the test when they welcome St. John’s.
The Red Storm (11-1) is off to its best start since Mark Anderson took over in the 2019-20 season. Its lone loss came from Iowa State (who Villanova fell to in overtime), a 71-60 result back on Dec. 4. St. John’s responded with three-straight wins, a stretch that included a win over DePaul in their only other Big East game so far.
Tip-off is scheduled for Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. ET from Finneran Pavilion. Here are three things to watch:
40 minutes of hell
Adopted from his time as a longtime assistant at Arkansas for Nolan Richardson, who came up with the concept of ‘40 minutes of hell,’ Anderson’s teams have developed that same mindset in New York.
Villanova has fended off the fast-paced, up-tempo style for the most part, going 6-1 since Anderson’s arrival, but there were some scares along the way.
The Red Storm got the best of Villanova and made them super uncomfortable in a turnover-filled loss at Carnesecca Arena back in 2021. Last season, although Villanova won all three meetings, they never came easily. St. John’s nearly came back from a 20-point deficit and almost shocked the ‘Cats before they rallied late in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals.
This year’s St. John’s team seems to be one of Anderson’s most balanced, according to KenPom. It entered the week ranked in the top 55 for offensive efficiency (53rd) and defensive efficiency (49th). For the third straight season, it’s ranked in the top 10 for tempo.
Despite the pace, the Red Storm takes pretty good care of the ball and doesn’t get too reckless with it. Also, so far this season, this Red Storm team is shaping up to be one of Anderson’s better ones defensively.
In past years, there would be some sort of trade off to keep up the blazing pace — whether it was not rebounding, or getting torched on the three-point line. This time around, St. John’s seems to be pretty sound in comparison. Last season, it ranked 211th in three-point defense and 309th in rebounding rate, while this year, it is holding teams to just a 31.5% from long range and is rebounding well on both ends of the court.
St. John’s had missed out on plenty of top-tier New York City-area talent over the years, but its fortune when it comes to recruiting in its backyard has turned for the better in recent years. From securing recruits or enticing players to transfer back home and play for the Johnnies, things have changed.
This year’s St. John’s team is loaded with plenty of homegrown talent that’s leading the charge.
Joel Soriano, a Yonkers, N.Y. native and former Fordham player, transformed his body since arriving in Queens and it’s been paying dividends in his second season. He leads St. John’s and averages a double-double, with 15.3 points and 12.6 rebounds per game. He also averages 1.4 blocks per game and shoots 59.8% on the floor.
Andre Curbelo, who played high school ball at nearby Long Island Lutheran, has been an impact guard since transferring from Illinois. He averages 11.3 points, 4.9 assists and 1.9 steals per game and is a nice one-two punch with Brooklyn native Posh Alexander, who has taken a step back in production but remains a valued contributor on both ends of the ball.
Alexander isn’t scoring as much as he used to, but chips in 9.8 points, 3.8 rebounds. 4.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game.
Other local guys, like Dylan Addae-Wusu, Rafael Pinzon and Drissa Traore have carved out niches for themselves as role players, especially Addae-Wusu.
While the St. John’s roster is loaded with backyard talent, it’s also gotten a significant boost from transfer David Jones, who was a standout at DePaul. He’s picked up from where he left off and is the Red Storm’s second-highest scorer at 15.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
Former Rutgers transfer Montez Mathis has also shown improvement in his game in his second year with the Johnnies. He’s on pace to set a new career high, with 10.0 points per game and has grown as a perimeter threat, cashing in on 45.5% of three-point shots, after shooting below 29.0% in the four years before this one.
Neptune makes his Big East conference-play head coaching debut
Everyone knows league play is another animal. There were some rough moments early on this season, but it’ll be interesting to see how Neptune and Co. handle their first Big East game.
The ‘Cats are riding a four-game winning streak. While there were some pretty moments during this stretch, like a hard-fought win over Oklahoma to spark this winning surge, followed by victories over Penn and Boston College, the St. Joe’s game left more to be desired.
There were some positive aspects though, like the fact that the ‘Cats have gotten themselves to finish strong and Cam Whitmore is back on the court. In the St. Joe’s game, Brandon Slater seems to have rediscovered his three-point shooting stroke and Chris Arcidiacono made some big plays late — on top of showing overall improvement — but this St. John’s team will be a test of offensive and defensive poise and discipline.
There are a lot of new moving parts for this Villanova team overall, and while Neptune and a few of the returners fully know what to expect from the Red Storm, execution is key. The Wildcat defense appears to still be a work-in-progress, and it’ll be interesting to see how the team handles their first Big East challenge. It won’t get easier from this point on, especially with a road trip to UConn waiting at the end of the week. But, it’s one game at a time!
This is equally a test for St. John’s. How much credence is there to that 11-1 record? How much stock should go into Villanova going to the last few minutes of overtime against Iowa State, while St. John’s mostly struggled against the Cyclones? The Red Storm’s non-conference strength of schedule weighs in at 335th in the country, compared to Villanova’s No. 65 ranking according to KenPom.
Styles make matchups. Will Villanova’s patience and slower pace of play win out? Will the tough non-conference schedule and early growing pains provide those key lessons to prepare them for Big East play? Does St. John’s get vengeance for a pair of disappointing endings at Madison Square Garden last season?