After surviving a late-game storm from the Xavier Musketeers, there will be another one brewing on Saturday.
The new-look St. John’s Red Storm, led by Rick Pitino, is making its way to Villanova for a Saturday matinee.
St. John’s is heading into the weekend coming off of back-to-back wins over Hofstra and Butler. The Red Storm are 10-4 overall and 2-1 in Big East play.
They’ll look to challenge the ‘Cats, who got their fourth straight victory to improve to 10-4 overall and 3-0 in conference action. Villanova is the last unbeaten team left standing in Big East play.
Saturday’s game is set to tip-off at 1 p.m. ET. Here is a preview of things to watch:
Rick Pitino’s high-pressure defensive schemes
Even after his time away from college basketball and foray in coaching at the professional level in Greece, Rick Pitino’s calling card has remained on the defensive end on the court, especially when it comes to applying pressure, generating turnovers and frustrating opponents.
If you thought the second half of the Xavier game was frustrating, Pitino and the Johnnies will be sure enough to dial up the heat for longer stretches, or roll out zone defenses at times — which we’ve seen Villanova struggle with in earlier losses. Point guard and playmaker-less lineups will not fly, and can’t afford to have Mark Armstrong out for crunch time if it’s a close game late.
Expect Pitino and St. John’s to throw out multiple looks defensively. The Johnnies rank 63rd in the country for defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
They generate turnovers on 19.6% of opponents possessions (68th in the country) and they have one of the higher non-steal turnover rates, all of which is typical for a Pitino-led team.
They also rank in the top 35 for shot-blocking rates, behind a frontcourt that features Joel Soriano, Chris Ledlum and Zuby Ejiofor.
However, it hasn’t always been perfect defensive execution for St. John’s, and it has had its inconsistencies in that end.
Pitino has called out his players for “not paying attention to the scouting report,” and they got annihilated earlier in the year by Michigan, and gave up more than 80 points to Dayton, Utah, and in a late-game collapse to Boston College.
Recently, Hofstra gave the Red Storm a scare, but St. John’s was able to hang on for an 84-79 win.
It’s to be expected though, St. John’s hasn’t reached its defensive potential yet and in part it’s due to the complexity of Pitino’s schemes.
When he was at Iona, a similar pattern emerged. The Gaels showed massive improvement with each passing year defensively, and even Pitino couldn’t roll out the press as much as he liked to in his first year, because his players still needed to learn the systems.
Fortunately for St. John’s, it has more talent on the roster to possibly close the gap earlier and do more defensively than Iona could in Pitino’s first year. If there is a blatant weakness, hopefully the ‘Cats can detect it and exploit like some of the Red Storm’s earlier adversaries.
Joel Soriano and his new friends
Double-double machine Joel Soriano and reserve big man Drissa Traore are the only returners from last season, after the roster was purged upon Pitino’s arrival.
Soriano is enjoying another standout season, where is among the top five in the Big East for scoring, rebounding, shot-blocking and shooting percentage.
Soriano leads the Johnnies with an average of 17.1 points (fourth in Big East), conference-best 10.4 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks (second in Big East) per game. He also is shooting a Big East-best 65.2% on the floor.
Behind him is Daniss Jenkins, who followed Pitino from Iona. Jenkins is an all-around guard, but has struggled with his three-point stroke and shot selection this season. He’s averaging 12.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.7 steals per game, while shooting 40.6% overall and 24.6% from deep.
Harvard transfer Chris Ledlum appears to be growing more comfortable and has helped out in the frontcourt as a versatile defender. He’s coming off of a 13-point, 11-rebound double-double against Butler, and has averaged 11.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game.
Penn transfer Jordan Dingle has struggled with consistency this season, after virtually singlehandedly carrying the Penn offense the last couple of years. Villanova fans may remember him, he piled up 25 points and nine rebounds against the ‘Cats last season.
Also keep an eye out for R.J. Luis Jr. He is starting to come into his own after missing a big chunk of non-conference play due to a shin injury. He played in each of their last three games, and has shown steady improvement throughout. He’s only played in a total of four games this year, but the Red Storm are optimistic for his future.
Defensively, UConn transfer Nahiem Alleyne and former Kansas big man Zuby Ejiofor are defensive reinforcements. Alleyne has always been a scrappy defender at every school he’s been to, and while he can chip in a few baskets here and there, his energy and defensive contributions are big. Meanwhile, Ejiofor might not see a bulk of the minutes, but he bolsters the frontcourt and is one of the top shot-blockers around.
Dixon vs. Soriano
Sure, it’ll be interesting to see how Villanova fares against St. John’s defensive pressure, but this individual matchup between two of the Big East’s premier big men will be well worth the price of admission.
Both are key leaders and play integral parts to their respective teams, and they’ve both shown that they can takeover games.
Also, whichever team can control the paint or establish the frontcourt will have a big part in deciding who wins. The Wildcats rank 31st in the country for limiting opponents to shooting just 44.7% inside the arc.
Meanwhile, St. John’s boasts the third-highest offensive rebounding rate in the country. It is an imperative for Villanova to box out and clean up the glass. A lot of Saturday’s game will rely on whether Dixon or Soriano can set the tone for their team.