At A Glance: Can St. John’s Beat Arizona Tonight?Posted by mlemaire on November 17th, 2011
They may sit atop the overall Big East standings at 3-0 on the season, but anyone who watched St. John’s play in those three games knows that those wins were a little bit more difficult to come by than coach Steve Lavin probably hoped. The old adage that “a win is a win” doesn’t seem to hold water when you are talking about five-point wins over Lehigh and second-half comeback wins against William & Mary. Fortunately for Red Storm fans eager to see what their team is truly made of, tonight’s game against No. 15 Arizona at Madison Square Garden should be an excellent barometer of just how good Lavin’s young team really is.
In many respects, the Wildcats and Red Storm are similar teams. Both are led by hotshot recruiters trying to return the program they captain back to greatness. Both are oozing with young, inexperienced talent and potential. And both teams haven’t exactly been setting the world on fire with their play thus far this season. While St. John’s has played the 280th-strongest schedule through three games according to KenPom.com, Arizona has managed an eight-point win, a nine-point win, and a ten-point win against Duquesne, Valparaiso, and Ball State respectively — at least they’re improving, I guess.
What does this all mean? Well it means that we should have a very exciting and very interesting game on our hands tonight. It will be the first marquee matchup for a Big East team this season and it will give viewers an excellent idea of the direction this team is headed this season. Of course here on the Big East microsite, Arizona and their season is not our concern. We are looking at how St. John’s will be able to win this game, and it will essentially come down to four important factors.
1. St. John’s has to get off to a quick start and stay fresh
If I were Steve Lavin (and St. John’s is probably lucky I am not), I would dial up the pressure from the opening tip. Arizona is leaving the friendly confines of the McKale Center for the first time this season, and Madison Square Garden is going to be rocking for a matchup between two of the better names in all of college basketball. If the Johnnies can force some early turnovers, knock down some big shots, and rattle the young Wildcats’ team, there is a chance they can build a comfortable lead. The argument for not pressing the ball early is that St. John’s is painfully thin and will likely only go seven deep again tonight. Sean Miller’s team isn’t that deep either, but they have a little bit more depth to work with. Lavin will need to do an excellent job of rotating his players and getting key minutes out of his bench players, otherwise ‘Zona could run away with the game down the stretch.
2. Nurideen Lindsey needs to continue to control the offense
Last year the Red Storm owed a large part of its success to then-senior Dwight Hardy. The do-it-all point guard did an excellent job managing the offense and was also clearly the team’s best offensive weapon. Hardy is gone now, and in his stead is the community college transfer and Philadelphia native Lindsey. At 6’3”, Lindsey is taller than most point guards and he has had his ups and downs thus far this season. He has scored at least 15 points in all three games and nearly secured a triple-double (15 points, nine assists, ten rebounds) in the win over UMBC. But he has also turned the ball over ten times, something he may be able to get away with against lesser opponents, but Arizona will make him pay if he is careless with the ball. He is going to be on the floor a lot tonight, and he may even be asked to guard ‘Zona star Kyle Fogg. But he needs to make sure he balances his defensive and scoring priorities with his decision-making.
3. Lindsey, D’Angelo Harrison, and Malik Stith will need to be at the top of their game
It’s not secret that the strength of Sean Miller’s club is the backcourt. Kyle Fogg, Jordin Mayes, and freshmen Nick Johnson and even Josiah Turner are athletic, fast, and they can all fill it up in a hurry when they get going. The same can be said for Lindsey, Harrison, Stith, and even freshmen Sir’Dominic Pointer and Phil Greene. The difference is that Arizona has at least some experience on their side. Fogg (14.7 PPG) is a senior who has averaged more than 20 MPG every season of his career, and Mayes played meaningful minutes off the bench as a freshman last year as well. Stith was the only member of the Red Storm backcourt who had played in a Division I game before this season, and he never averaged more than 13 MPG. Arizona hasn’t forced a lot of turnovers yet this season, but they are an efficient defensive basketball team and Lavin’s guards will need to be able to contribute offensively if they expect to keep pressure off of the frontcout.
4. Moe Harkless can’t be just okay, he needs to dominate
God’s Gift Achiuwa may be the team’s leading scorer thus far, but Harkless has more offensive skills. At 6’8” and 190 pounds, Harkless is big enough to score in the paint and is athletic and versatile enough to play on the perimeter as well. Averaging 16.7 PPG and 6 RPG, Harkless has been instrumental in St. John’s success thus far this season. But he has also been playing more than 30 MPG and is bound to have a game where he actually looks like a freshman sooner or later. The good news is that Arizona’s frontcourt, with apologies to Solomon Hill, is undersized and underwhelming. Hill is their best big man and he has plenty of strength, but he doesn’t have the size or the skill to keep up with Harkless if the freshman is on his game, and neither does Kyryl Natyazhko. If Harkless can build confidence with a couple of early baskets, he could be the key to St. John’s offense all night long.