Big East/SEC Challenge Face-Off: St. John’s @ Kentucky

Posted by Gerald Smith on December 1st, 2011

To preview the match-ups in the Big East/SEC Challenge, the Big East & SEC Microsites are facing off in conversational analysis. Gerald Smith and Patrick Prendergast are going one-on-one to break down St. John’s trip to Rupp Arena to face Kentucky.

Gerald Smith: They’re young now, they’re wild now and they want to be free; Kentucky and St. John’s have got the magic power of freshmen in them! The Johnnies gathered the third-best recruiting class in the nation which included Maurice Harkless, D’Angelo Harrison and Sir’Dominic Pointer. The Wildcats managed yet another number one recruiting class of Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kyle Wiltjer. Wiltjer (7.8 PPG while averaging 16 minutes per game) has been the slowest to adjust to the speed and complexity of coach John Calipari’s system. The other freshmen have been crucial from the beginning: Kidd-Gilchrist (12.5 PPG while averaging 30 minutes per game), Teague (11.7 PPG while averaging 30 minutes per game) and Davis (12.7 PPG while averaging 25.7 minutes per game) have powered the Kentucky machine to triumphs over Top 25 Kansas and an experienced and well-defending Old Dominion squad.

Its Fresmanpalooza in Lexington (credit: BB Times)

These Wildcats freshmen starters aren’t without their faults. Davis is still learning how to play as a collegiate-level forward who should be more effective in the post. Kidd-Gilchrist’s jump-shooting will be a thorn in his side most of the season. Teague is experiencing the normal growing pains of Calipari point guards: Forcing too many plays which lead to turnovers or bad offensive sets.

Which St. John’s freshmen have been the fueling their team so far this season?

Patrick Prendergast: First off, it is a shame that St. John’s coach Steve Lavin will not be on the sideline for the game as he continues in his recovery from prostate cancer surgery. His presence would have added to the allure of this one. If St. John’s, a team that has not played well of late, can hang in there with the more talented Kentucky team as they did with Arizona and Texas A&M, this has the potential to be an extremely entertaining game as it is difficult to see the Storm go out of character and try to slow the game down to offset Kentucky’s need for speed.

Two freshman to watch are 6’3″ guard D’Angelo Harrison (14.3 PPG, 3.9 RPG) and 6’8″ guard/forward Moe Harkless (14.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.9 BLK) to go along with another impact newcomer in junior college transfer God’sgift Achiuwa. The 6’8″ forward is averaging 11.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game and gives the Red Storm an inside presence.

While this game may have a playground feel at times, it’s too bad it was not being played in New York. The weather in the northeast has been great so we could have taken this one outside to Rucker Park and get it on. No refs, call your own fouls.

Gerald Smith: I wonder if St. John’s would prefer all the refs they can get. Maybe bring a few extra; I’m sure Teddy Valentine would love to be the fifth on-floor official. If St. John’s can get Kentucky’s players in foul trouble, they’ll have a much better chance at pulling off an upset in Rupp Arena. The primary objective should be to remove Anthony Davis’ incredible wingspan and shotblocking ability. Davis is a key component of Kentucky’s occasionally-deployed 2-3 zone defense. When teams rotate the ball around to the corner that Davis covers, his closing speed and length is unlike anybody in college basketball. If the Red Storm can’t wheel the ball and drain opposite-corner jumpers, their zone offense will struggle.

It was Old Dominion’s zone defense — a combination of 2-3 and 3-2 — that really choked Kentucky’s offense ten days ago in Mohegan Sun Arena. Kentucky committed 19 turnovers and only outrebounded the Monarchs by ten. John Calipari admitted after the game that his team had never prepped this season to play against a 3-2 zone. Since then Marquis Teague and the rest of the Wildcats have looked better prepared against it.

What adjustments do you think St. John’s will make to their offensive and defensive sets to keep the Wildcats off-balance?

Patrick Prendergast: Actually the fewer refs on the court, the more St. John’s may be able to get away with! In all seriousness, for St. John’s to have a chance in this one, they are likely going to need to control tempo and make it a half-court game. Kentucky is young, as is St. John’s, so it stands to reason that they would be prone to mistakes due to inexperience, especially if you make them run offense for for 15-20 seconds per possession and ultimately have them settle for lower-percentage shots. That can lead to frustration followed by mental errors such as charges and rushed shots. The additional challenge there is St. John’s is getting outrebounded by four boards per game so if they are fortunate enough to get Kentucky to miss shots, they are going to have to limit UK’s second shot opportunities.

Will the Young Johnnies Get Fazed at Rupp?

Gerald Smith: Surprisingly Kentucky has yet to play rattled for a significant amount of time. Though they struggled against Old Dominion, they never relinquished control of the game. Earlier in the season in Madison Square Garden, the Wildcats were down by seven points to a battling Kansas squad midway through the first half. Kentucky used its play-making abilities on both offense and defense to tie the game up at halftime, then came out and dominated the second half. (Making six of nine 3-pointers in the second half — including three in a two-minute span from sophomore Doron Lamb — ultimately grounded the Jayhawks.)

The huge separation between St. John’s and Kentucky right now is that the Wildcats have a significant number of talented and experienced players: sophomores Lamb and forward Terrence Jones and senior forward Darius Miller. Miller has provided leadership when coming off the bench, which keeps the Wildcats productive in the middle of substitution rotations. Lamb is deadly from long range and has developed better skills driving to the basket, making him an incredible dribble-drive asset much like Chris Douglas-Roberts. Jones made a bad off-the-court mistake but has made very few on-the-court ones.

I believe Kentucky’s experienced players will steady the freshmen if St. John’s plays with poise. If I had to lay it on the line: Kentucky 87, St. John’s 70.

Your final thoughts and prediction?

Patrick Prendergast: This certainly is not the type of St. John’s team that hammered then-#3 Duke 93-70 last January, and it honestly is very difficult to see the Johnnies hanging with a superior Kentucky team for 40 minutes, especially on the road. St. John’s will bring the effort, energy and perhaps a little bit of that steep underdog shoulder chip but in the end the Wildcats will prevail. Kentucky 82, St. John’s 66

Gerald Smith (39 Posts)

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