It's really a shame what happened to D.J. Kennedy, tearing his ACL in the Big East tournament quarterfinals matchup against Syracuse.
The St. John's Red Storm are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002 and they arguably were placed into the weakest region as a sixth seed. The top-seeded team in the Southeast region is Pittsburgh, a team St. John's already beat this season and the other top teams are not really where they should be.
Some have said that the Red Storm could beat Jimmer Fredette-led BYU should they reach the third round this weekend. The question is, will they get there by beating 11th-seeded Gonzaga? It's not a lock and that could mean an upset.
It's not because St. John's isn't better than Gonzaga, who's not the same team that's reached this tournament the previous 12 years. It's that the loss of Kennedy could hurt. He was the heart and soul of the team, even though Dwight Hardy is the main scorer and most-improved player in the Big East.
Last season in his junior season, Kennedy averaged over 15 points per game. This season as a senior looking to get to this point, he sacrificed some of his scoring in favor of guys like Hardy and Justin Brownlee who saw his numbers increase as well.
Kennedy didn't score as much, but was a huge defensive presence and made things happen. He even increased his free throw percentage to a career-best 78 percent and his field goal percentage rose to a career-high as well.
Now with him not being a factor for as long as St. John's sticks around, how will they go about pulling wins out like they did in impressive fashion for most of the season?
St. John's likes to play a real aggressive defense and likes to put the full-court pressure on. Every player sticks to their man and makes sure to be in position to grab the rebound. Their defense is really why they were able to pull out wins against teams like Pittsburgh, Duke and Connecticut among others. When Kennedy went down against Syracuse, the defense wasn't the same and the Red Storm weren't getting many stops.
The leading scorer on Gonzaga is Steven Gray, averaging 13.8 points per game. That's not a bad thing for St. John's as he'll go up against Hardy who's the better player.
The issue will be how the Red Storm are going to defend a player like Elias Harris. He would've been guarded by Kennedy and now, look for Sean Evans to start in Kennedy's place at forward and guard Harris. Both players are around the same height and Evans has been a spark plug this season, having his best games in the Big East tournament where he averaged 12 points per game. But he's still not Kennedy and that's what might hurt St. John's.
Looking ahead in this tournament, if St. John's wins this game, can they still go deep without Kennedy? You could make a case that with him, they could've made the elite eight.
BYU had a tremendous season and Fredette is an outstanding player, but the Brandon Davies suspension is going to hurt like Kennedy's injury. Further down the line, Florida is not a legitimate two seed and St. John's already beat Pittsburgh.
That's what's so disappointing for the Red Storm to lose one of their key players when finally getting to the big dance.
They should still win this game Thursday night in Denver, but things would've felt a lot better had Kennedy not gone down.
Keys To the Game For St. John's
Keep all eyes on Steven Gray: The senior guard for Gonzaga is the team's leading scorer at 13.8 points and leads the team in assists with 3.9 per game.
Dwight Hardy will have to contain him and St. John's defenders will have to clog up the paint to make sure he doesn't pass for easy layups.
Don't let Kelly Olynyk drain three-pointers: It's very rare that a player standing seven-feet tall can successfully shoot three-pointers, but Olynyk can. He's attempted 27 of them this season and has made 12 of them, a 44 percent clip. St. John's can't let him go wild and take over from downtown.
Don't go cold on offense: It really comes down to this for St. John's. If they have a bad shooting night, they probably won't win. They rank 132nd in the nation in points per game at 70.1 and Gonzaga ranks 23rd in scoring at 76.7.
They must get good games from guys like Hardy, Brownlee and Paris Horne if they expect to stay with Gonzaga.
Keep the pressure going on defense: One thing Gonzaga does well is shoot. Their field goal percentage is 10th in the nation at just about 48 percent, meaning the Red Storm must play tight defense and contest on every opportunity Gonzaga gets.
Win the rebounding battle and don't allow second-chance opportunities: The last thing St. John's wants to do is stop Gonzaga from getting off good shots, but allowing them second-chance points.
It doesn't look good on paper as Gonzaga is the better rebounding team, but St. John's must get some big bodies under the basket like Evans and Brownlee who are 6'7" and 6'8" respectively and led the team in boards against Syracuse.
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