Following years of residence in the cellar of the Big East conference, the St. John’s Red Storm find themselves back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2002.
The Johnnies received a No. 6 seed from the selection committee, and will face the Gonzaga Bulldogs in their first-round match-up, scheduled for Thursday evening.
To say that this season has been a pleasant surprise would be an understatement.
As much as the fans are looking forward to the tournament, it’s important to praise the achievements of this core group of young men up to this point in the season. They have always been competitive as heavy underdogs in years past, but this year, they have finally found a way to break through against top competition.
Before we get to the players, let’s not overlook the job that Steve Lavin, along with Gene Keady and the rest of the coaching staff, has done this year.
While former coach Norm Roberts deserves praise for developing these seniors, Lavin—who has lauded his predecessor’s work—is the one who has transformed this club into a winner.
Whether it be the heavy use of the full-court press, the harassing zone defense, or the up-tempo offensive attack, Lavin has implemented an attitude and style of play that suits these players wonderfully.
Lavin has certainly shaken up the dynamic of this team, something that the players—and particularly a group of seniors—could very well have rebelled against. Instead, they have embraced Lavin’s coaching, with some players accepting a reduced role for the betterment of the team.
During the 2009-10 season, D.J. Kennedy led the Red Storm in points, rebounds, and assists. A year ago, his season-ending injury would have been devastating to the team, but a renewed focus on team basketball will lessen the blow heading into the tournament.
Kennedy will certainly be missed, particularly from beyond the arc and on the defensive end, but his fellow seniors—Malik Boothe, Justin Brownlee, Justin Burrell, Dele Coker, Sean Evans, Dwight Hardy, Paris Horne, and Malik Stith—have more than enough talent to pick up the slack.
If the Johnnies are to beat the Gonzaga Bulldogs, they will need Sean Evans to continue his strong play of late.In his last three games, Evans averaged 11 points and 10 rebounds, including six offensive rebounds in a losing effort against Syracuse.
Against Gonzaga, Evans—along with Brownlee and Burrell—will draw the tall task of keeping seven-footer Robert Sacre off the glass.
Sacre and Gonzaga hold a large height advantage over the Red Storm; something I expect the Zags to focus on. In order to combat this, the Johnnies’ zone will have to be extremely active, doubling Sacre (who averages two turnovers per game) anytime he puts the ball on the floor.
One thing St.John’s must be wary of is foul trouble, as the Bulldogs shoot the ball well from the charity stripe, particularly Sacre. A referee with a happy whistle could spell doom for a physical Red Storm team.
The active zone defense could backfire if the Zags catch fire from downtown, but that is a risk St. John’s has lived with all year (at Seton Hall, anyone?). The Red Storm would still rather give up a look at a three than an easy layup off a blown assignment, so I expect no change in their defensive look.
On the offensive end, look for St.John’s to draw their own fair share of fouls, something that helped them defeat the much larger Pittsburgh Panthers in February.
Aside from running Hardy off picks, I’d like to see them get the ball to Burrell down low early on (even though I feel he could be called for a travel anytime he gets the ball), and see if he can draw some contact against the larger Zags while also utilizing his touch around the rim.
Although this is a tournament preview, much of the focus is on the opening round game. I feel that this is a very tough match-up for the Red Storm, and they would be wise not to overlook this Gonzaga team.
However, assuming that they do prevail over Gonzaga, the winning formula for St. John’s going forward should not change.
They need to apply heavy pressure on the defensive end, create turnovers, and keep up their high energy transition attack. If they continue to play selfless, team-first basketball, there is no reason they can’t make a nice run through the Southeast region of the bracket.
On Thursday evening, lace up your white Nikes. The Redmen are going dancing.