Defense Provides St. John’s With an Identity

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 20th, 2014

For the Red Storm, it was never a question of talent. D’Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan were All-Big East team nominees and Chris Obekpa has been one of the most intimidating shot blockers in the country. But despite being picked to finish third in the Big East this season, there was a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the team chemistry and the collective focus on the defensive end of the floor heading into the season. It was a problem that plagued talented teams of the past, and without a leader, it would continue to do so.

St. John's Defense (USA Today Images)

St. John’s Defense Gives the Red Storm an Identity (USA Today Images)

D’Angelo Harrison changed that. With 5:29 remaining in the game, the senior motioned his teammates into a huddle, drawing them away from an increasingly confrontational game against St. Mary’s. Frequently cited for attitude problems in the past, it showed signs of the team’s long-awaited maturation; a coming of age, displayed in just a matter of moments. From there, the Red Storm rallied, together as a team, to capture another home court win. However, that’s not to say the win came easily. In the first half, the Johnnies looked completely out of rhythm, reverting to their old, all too familiar “take ‘em” strategy. Like a bad habit, the problem for is one that becomes self-reinforcing over time: shoot first, think second. When it works, the perimeter tandem of Harrison, Jordan, and Phil Greene looks unstoppable, especially when Obekpa and Sir’Dominic Pointer are on the floor to grab offensive rebounds. But when it doesn’t? The team looks desperate and confused.

For a team that, according to Kenpom, had an 84% chance of winning this game, St. John’s did little to instill much confidence in the first half. Where was the St. John’s team that held off Minnesota, or the one that trounced Syracuse? Because unlike a team that simply went cold, St. John’s was struggling to even set itself up for open shots on the perimeter or find open players in the paint. And on the defensive end were countless lapses: post players hedging too far on screens, guards losing track of shooters, and Obekpa and Harrison overcommitting and putting themselves into foul trouble. The team’s 18 point first half on 6-of-25 shooting can be best described in one word: ugly. Clearly, the offense wasn’t clicking, and the lack of inspiration on the defensive end was a driving force. “The only way to get through [the poor offense] is to turn up the heat defensively, and try to get a string of stops,” Lavin said, “and then that leads to the run outs and turnovers which allow us to get out in the open court.”

What hurt them in the first half saved them in the second. After giving up 33 first half points, they held the Gaels to just 14 in the second half on 6-29 shooting, while simultaneously scoring 17 points off turnovers. The team’s defensive pressure, generating steals and forcing rushed shots, gave life to the Red Storm and their stadium full of supporters. “I feel like we went away from what we did in the first half when we controlled the tempo of the game,” said Brad Waldow, who scored a game high 26 points and added 11 rebounds for the Gaels. With the shot-blocking Obekpa in foul trouble, Pointer, a 6’6 senior, quickly rose to the occasion, using his length to front Waldow in the low post and grabbing crucial offensive rebounds to keep a play alive. This was the defensive strategy that flipped the switch: with Waldow being forced to catch the ball away from the post, he became more turnover prone, and St. John’s quickly capitalized. While this was only one game, the script reads the same for many others so far this season; St. John’s thrives on its defense.

By all means it is completely reasonable to worry about the team’s offensive sputters, especially when Harrison isn’t shooting efficiently. But Lavin has made it increasingly clear that his team draws its on the defensive end of the floor. If nothing else, this tale of two halves served as overwhelming proof of it: in just 40 minutes, we witnessed a team lose and regain its identity.

Justin Kundrat (170 Posts)

Villanova grad, patiently waiting another 10 years for season tickets. Follow Justin on twitter @JustinKundrat or email him at justin.kundrat@gmail.com


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