St. John’s Bent But Not Broken With Duke Looming

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 22nd, 2015

St. John’s fans expected a regular NCAA Tournament team by now. When head coach Steve Lavin was brought in five years ago to revive the Red Storm program from the woeful Norm Roberts era, there were high expectations based on his recruiting connections and player development abilities. Playing with a senior-laden roster in his first season at the helm, the Red Storm went on to make the NCAA Tournament before bowing out in the first round. Since then, however, Lavin’s teams have fallen well short, either striking out completely or wavering on the bubble (50-48 from 2012-14). Despite having a talented core of players ranging from the Big East’s second-leading scorer, D’Angelo Harrison (20.0 PPG), to the nation’s third-leading shot blocker, Chris Obekpa (3.5 BPG), depth, largely driven by recruiting misses, has been a problem. Highly-acclaimed recruits Adonis DeLaRosa and Keith Thomas, for example, have yet to see playing time after failing to meet academic standards, and Rysheed Jordan, the third-ranked point guard of his class, has not meshed well into the system, frequently cited for attitude problems both on and off the court. Needless to say, the fans are getting restless, and understandably so. After starting this season off strong and making its way back into the Top 25 (at one point as high as #15), St. John’s has fallen off in dramatic fashion. An 11-1 team with good wins over Minnesota and at Syracuse came into Wednesday night’s game versus Marquette having dropped four of its last five games and looking to get back on track.

Steve Lavin (USA Today Images)

Steve Lavin Needs to Turn Things Around Quickly (USA Today Images)

For such an important game, it was remarkably sluggish. Harrison shot a dismal 3-of-18 from the field; Phil Greene and Rysheed Jordan struggled to navigate Marquette’s zone defenses; and Obekpa, while strong on the shot-blocking front, contributed little in the way of scoring. Yet the Red Storm’s defense was sufficient and vital in keeping the team afloat, grabbing 10 steals and holding Marquette to 33.9 percent shooting on the evening. The bottom line is that it was a necessary win for Steve Lavin’s squad, although an unconvincing one. “When you have a stretch where you feel snake-bitten, it’s good to have a win and get some momentum,” he said after the game. With Harrison unable to find the basket, concerns have arisen and postseason expectations have warped. “It’s clear his injury is bothering him… it’s rare for him to have back-to-back games like that,” Lavin added. A usually reliable scoring threat, there is no question Harrison will eventually find his rhythm. But the when needs to be now, as the team gears up for a huge game against Duke on Sunday. One game at a time should be this group’s mantra with its biggest test of the season just a few days away. “The Duke game presents a big opportunity for us on our home court against a very talented team. We’ve got a couple of days to prepare here and get ready. To beat Duke it’s going to be a collective effort,” Lavin said.

For a St. John’s team that appears wobbly and shaken, a midseason non-conference tilt against Duke offers the greatest of opportunities to refocus some of the negative energy that has once again started to creep into this program’s psyche.

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Big East Weekend Wrap: Vol. VII

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 13th, 2015

The Big East Weekend Wrap covers news and notes from the previous weekend’s games.

The Big East marched along last week, continuing its ascent up the rankings of the power conferences. It reached the #1 ranking for overall conference RPI for a bit before bowing to the Big 12 (only slightly), and the conference now stands at second overall with a sizable gap between itself and the rest. Even more impressively, the Big East has the highest average RPI among its conference members thanks to DePaul’s 3-0 start. As of this writing, the league lists nine of its 10 members among the top 100. Below is a list of four key takeaways from the last weekend’s action.

LaDontae Henton

LaDontae Henton’s Team Has a Legitimate Case to Rank Among the League’s Top Three Teams

Providence makes its push for the top of the standings. As I wrote in an earlier article, Providence has a legitimate case as a top three team in the Big East even though the Friars had largely fallen off the radar in non-conference play. They made a strong push last week, picking up a road win at Butler and then defeating Georgetown in overtime. Neither result was necessarily pretty — the Friars won both by a combined seven points — but the pair of wins catapulted Providence to the top of the league standings with a 3-1 record. Kris Dunn and LaDontae Henton continue to carry the load on the offensive end, with Dunn doing a much better job of staying out of foul trouble and remaining on the floor. The duo lead the conference in assists and points per game, respectively.

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Big East Weekend Wrap: Vol. VI

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 6th, 2015

The Big East Weekend Wrap covers news and notes from the previous weekend’s games.

The opening week of Big East play featured some crazy results: the home teams went 9-1; the favored teams went 5-5; every ranked team lost at least once; and DePaul is 2-0. If nothing else, these results show the level of parity in the Big East this season. Talent aside, teams succeeded in defending their home floor as the only two unbeaten teams in conference play are the ones that have yet to play on the road. Below are five key takeaways from the Big East’s opening weekend:

  1. Seton Hall has been nothing short of impressive. Not only did the Pirates win two conference games without Isaiah Whitehead, but they did so against what was believed to be the league’s top two teams. After trouncing St. John’s behind 10-of-23 shooting from three, Kevin Willard’s group took it to Villanova, jumping out to an early 17-3 lead before relinquishing it all and then ultimately winning in overtime. It goes without saying that junior guard Sterling Gibbs, who led the team with a combined 45 points, has made his way into all-Big East first team discussions. Stripped of his backcourt mate and second leading scorer, Gibbs took the scoring and passing duties into his own hands, easily creating his own shot off the dribble and putting teammates in scoring situations. Alongside Gibbs, three freshmen — Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguz and Angel Delgado – stepped up at different times to propel the Pirates.

    Sterling Gibbs has played his way into Big East first-team discussions. (Getty)

    Sterling Gibbs has played his way into Big East first-team discussions. (Getty)

  2. DePaul has done its best to counter every prediction about a last place finish. Following a string of six straight brutal losses — including defeats to the likes of Ohio and Loyola Marymount —  DePaul appeared to be right on track for its annual January plunge into the Big East abyss. Yet this time, Billy Garrett Jr. decided he’d rather not. In front of their usual half empty arena, the Blue Demons dashed the hopes of both Marquette and Xavier, handing three-point losses to both. By slowing each game down to a crawl (64 possessions each), it didn’t matter that Oliver Purnell’s team is playing defense that ranks among the worst 50 teams in the country or that both of their opponents ranked in the top 40 in two-point field goal percentage. DePaul won by forcing turnovers (30 over the two games) and with Garrett breaking out of his shooting slump — the 6’6″ sophomore played under control, shooting 12-of-16 from the field over both games and matching his career high 10 assists against Xavier. Read the rest of this entry »
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Will the Big East Have Six NCAA Teams? A Mid-Season Review

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 31st, 2014

With the arrival of conference play comes a critical juncture for teams looking to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Those that have overperformed against their preseason expectations — teams like St. John’s and Seton Hall — will seek to establish an early footprint in the increasingly competitive Big East, whereas the likes of Marquette, Xavier and Creighton look to re-emerge after a handful of non-conference woes. Today we will examine the top Big East overperformers and underperformers to this point, followed by an early look at the NCAA Tournament bubble as it relates to each team. But before discussing team performance, my preseason Big East rankings were as follows:

Villanova Has Lived Up to Its Expectations This Season (USA Today Images)

Villanova Has Lived Up to Its Expectations This Season (USA Today Images)

  1. Villanova
  2. Georgetown
  3. Xavier
  4. St. John’s
  5. Providence
  6. Seton Hall
  7. Butler
  8. Marquette
  9. Creighton
  10. DePaul

Biggest Overperformers

  • St. John’s (11-1) has made a serious case as the second best team in the Big East. Sporting a defense that ranks fourth nationally in defensive efficiency and third in block percentage, the Red Storm have received a great deal of attention following wins at Syracuse and versus Minnesota. Sure, they were fourth in my preseason rankings, but the envisioned gap between the Johnnies and Xavier/Georgetown was large and has proven so far to be completely off base. Ranked #15 in the latest AP Poll, Steve Lavin has built a team featuring an incredibly talented group of quick, athletic guards with senior D’Angelo Harrison (19.0 PPG) shouldering the offensive load while do-it-all forward Sir’Dominic Pointer and shot-blocker Chris Obekpa wreak defensive havoc. At this point, St. John’s has looked superior to every other Big East team outside of Villanova, and although its inconsistent outside shooting (266th nationally) and offensive execution in the half-court leave much to be desired, the Red Storm have been the single biggest conference surprise this season.

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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.

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One on One: A Big East Preview with Jon Rothstein

Posted by Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) on November 3rd, 2014

RTC interviews one on one

Rush the Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you throughout the preseason with previews of each of the major conferences.

With the college basketball season nearly upon us, we thought it would be a good idea to gather some expert opinions on the nation’s major college basketball conferences. As part of our national preview with the Big East, RTC correspondent Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) recently had the pleasure of speaking with a Big East expert in CBS Sports Network College Basketball Insider Jon Rothstein (@jonrothstein)

Rush the Court: Villanova enters the season as the pretty clear favorite to win the league. The Wildcats return four starters from a team that went 29-5 last season. What are some reasonable expectations for Jay Wright’s squad this season?

Expectations are high for Jay Wright and Company. (Getty)

Expectations are High for Jay Wright’s Villanova Team (Getty)

Jon Rothstein: I think reasonable expectations are to win the Big East title, have a chance at winning the Big East Tournament title, and get another high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Villanova was terrific last year in close game situations. I think there is a real possibility that Villanova could be a better team this year than it was last year, but have a worse record because its non-conference schedule is that much more difficult. What makes Villanova so good this year is that it does not lose 50/50 balls. Every ball that is being contested seems to go Villanova’s way almost every time. A big reason for that is Josh Hart. Hart is a guy who can go on a tear for Villanova this year, as he will step into a more enhanced role with the departure of James Bell. I think right now if there is one person who epitomizes Villanova’s culture and brand, it is Josh Hart.

RTC: Georgetown had a below average season last year [just 18-15 overall and 8-10 in conference]. There are no two ways around that. Does John Thompson III’s team have enough firepower to ensure a more successful campaign this season?

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Five Things We Learned in the Big East this Weekend

Posted by George Hershey on February 17th, 2014

Another weekend of Big East basketball is in the books, so are five key takeaways as we move into the stretch run of the regular season.

Rysheed Jordan has helped spark St. John's  (Andew Theodorakis/ New York Daily News?

Rysheed Jordan has helped spark St. John’s
(Andew Theodorakis/ New York Daily News?

  1. Creighton is in line to win the regular season title, but it will not come easy: With a half game advantage over Villanova and owning the tie-breaker, the Bluejays are favorites to win the league, but they have a tougher road ahead than Villanova. The Bluejays play three games on the road to finish the year, traveling to Marquette Wednesday, and Xavier and Georgetown the first week of March. Villanova on the other hand only has one road game, at Xavier. Both teams are going to get every team’s best shot, but even though Creighton has owned Villanova this year, don’t be surprised if the Wildcats end as regular season champions.
  2. No reason to worry for Villanova: Even though Villanova was bullied by Creighton both times they played, there shouldn’t be too much concern over it. They have yet to lose to any other team in the conference and have only been beaten by two teams the entire season, Syracuse and Creighton. The Bluejays are simply a tough matchup for Jay Wright’s team as every team struggles against a certain style. Creighton spread the ball out and Wright could not find anybody to defend Doug McDermott to at least hold him somewhat in check. The Wildcats have played remarkably all year and a strong finish should leave them in prime position to make a run to the Final Four. Read the rest of this entry »
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St. John’s Showing Real Signs of Improvement

Posted by Brian Otskey on February 10th, 2014

It was not even a month ago, 24 days to be exact, that St. John’s was sitting at the very bottom of the Big East at 0-5 in league play along with Butler. At 9-8 overall and winless in the conference, panic was starting to set in amongst the fan base and some media folks who thought this year’s St. John’s team could contend for a high conference finish and make the NCAA Tournament. Fast forward to approximately 9:15 pm EST on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden and St. John’s had flipped the script after upsetting Creighton and moving to 15-9 overall and 5-6 in conference play after its sixth win in seven games.

Steve Lavin's Group May be Turning the Corner (AP)

Steve Lavin’s Group May be Turning the Corner (AP)

The Red Storm locked down defensively in the second half, holding National Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott (25 points, 10-18 FG) without one single shot attempt over the final eight minutes and 41 seconds of the game. “They did a good job of fronting him to make his catches tough,” said McDermott’s father and Creighton head coach Greg McDermott. St. John’s sophomore JaKarr Sampson did most of the heavy lifting for the Red Storm when it came to guarding McDermott, using his length, quickness and athleticism to frustrate the nation’s best player for most of the evening. “My mindset was to focus on defense,” Sampson told reporters after the game. Focus he did and it resulted in McDermott becoming frustrated and a non-factor down the stretch despite a hot start to the game for the Creighton senior. “Their length and their athleticism…it distracts you,” said Doug McDermott. “They did a great job of taking me away.”

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“Super Saturday” Results Give Hope to St. John’s and Georgetown

Posted by Brian Otskey on February 2nd, 2014

Brian Otskey (@botskey) attended the “Super Saturday” doubleheader at Madison Square Garden yesterday and filed this report.

When this year’s college basketball schedule was released, many people circled February 1 on their calendars as it would feature a doubleheader at Madison Square Garden on the day before the Super Bowl involving three quality Big East teams and a national championship contender from the Big Ten. Fast forward to the actual game day and the storylines coming in to Saturday’s games were a lot different. Marquette, picked to finish first in the new look Big East, was looking to get its season back on track after losing nine games before February and posting just a .500 mark in Big East play. St. John’s, a trendy surprise preseason pick, had stumbled badly and came into yesterday’s game with a 2-6 league record. Georgetown, picked right behind Marquette in the preseason poll, entered the weekend with an 11-9 overall record and in the midst of a five-game losing streak. The only storyline that hadn’t changed from the preseason was Michigan State is still a national title contender, although the Spartans are currently playing without two injured starters in Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson.

Georgetown's Jabril Trawick and Mikael Hopkins got the best of Gary Harris and Michigan State on Saturday. (Credit: Anthony Gruppuso--USA Today)

Georgetown’s Jabril Trawick and Mikael Hopkins got the best of Gary Harris and Michigan State on Saturday. (Credit: Anthony Gruppuso–USA Today)

So much for that. Those storylines flipped once again after the games were played, as St. John’s blasted Marquette in a game that wasn’t remotely close, and Georgetown pulled a huge upset in knocking off the Spartans in the day’s second game. For Steve Lavin’s team, the win was further proof that the Red Storm are beginning to find their identity. The win was the fourth in five games with the only loss coming by three points at Creighton last Tuesday. St. John’s is playing better basketball and a lot of folks are starting to take notice. “Everything’s moving in the right direction,” said D’Angelo Harrison, who led the Johnnies with a game-high 27 points on 6-of-11 shooting from three-point land. “We’re buying into the process.” Lavin, while downplaying the win when a media member asked if it may represent a turning point, echoed Harrison’s comments. “The kids took another positive step forward. Since halftime of the Georgetown game, this team just keeps getting better,” said the fourth-year Red Storm head man. “I see it in practice, I see it in games. I haven’t had a group that fights back like this group.”

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Big East M5: 01.08.14 Edition

Posted by George Hershey on January 8th, 2014

bigeast_morning5(2)

  1. Only a few days after announcing his departure from the Providence basketball team, Brandon Austin has decided to transfer to Eugene to play for Dana Altman and Oregon. The impact of his loss has already been discussed, but Brendan McGair of the Woonsocket Call takes a look at Ed Cooley‘s burden after Kris Dunn was hurt in an exhibition game and the school’s administration suspended two of his players. He points out that Cooley’s job has gotten much more difficult on his quest to transform Providence back into a basketball power. Now in his third year, Cooley has shown he can recruit at a high level but his teams have failed to win enough games to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament. As if things couldn’t get any worse after a 30-point pasting at Villanova on Sunday, Cooley’s house suffered some damage after catching fire earlier this week. Luckily he and his family were safe.
  2. Villanova picked up its second commitment in the class of 2015 with Delaware shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo choosing the Wildcats over Syracuse. DiVincenzo has good size and will probably play shooting guard for Jay Wright’s squad. He can shoot the ball very well, has great athleticism, and looks like a good passer and facilitator. He is the second highly ranked player coming to Villanova next year, and he appears to be a great fit as someone who will be able to learn from Ryan Arcidiacono as a freshman.
  3. Big East teams are finally gaining some respect from Top 25 voters. Villanova rose three spots to eighth in the latest AP poll while Creighton is now 23rd in the USA Today Coaches Poll. Xavier also received some votes for the first time this season, as the Musketeers have impressed with recent wins over Cincinnati, Butler, Alabama, Wake Forest and St. John’s. Xavier hosts Marquette on Thursday and will travel to Creighton for a big tilt on Sunday. Georgetown could also work its way into the rankings over the next two weeks with upcoming games against Butler and Xavier. Reid Forgrave of FoxSports.com thinks that the Big East will improve come March and that some teams — Creighton, Villanova — are setting themselves up nicely while others — Marquette, Seton Hall, Providence — are digging themselves holes.
  4. Creighton was able to pull out a tough win against DePaul last night, but the bigger news of the night for the Bluejays was the injuries sustained by the team’s two best players. Grant Gibbs came down awkwardly at one point and was unable to make it off the court under his own power because of what looked to be a knee injury. He did not return and the severity of the injury is still unknown, but he is expected to undergo an MRI today. Doug McDermott dealt with a shoulder problem all night after running into the Blue Demons’ Sandi Marcius; the NPOY candidate finished the game and said he was fine afterward, but he was clearly hurting throughout. Losing Gibbs for any period of time would be a huge blow to the Bluejays’ long-term success, as Gibbs as the point guard runs one of the nation’s most efficient offenses. Over the summer, Gibbs received a surprising sixth year of eligibility so losing him would be a tragedy for Greg McDermott’s team. Here’s hoping that Gibbs and McDermott both recover quickly from their respective injuries. 
  5. Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated wrote his annual Stock Report piece, taking a look at 63 teams and deciding whether to buy, sell, or hold each going forward. Davis mentions seven Big East teams in his piece. He is optimistic about all three of the league’s new members — Xavier, Butler and Creighton —  as he rates them all a buy. Davis gives Georgetown a hold as the Hoyas have a tough stretch upcoming, but they have proven capable thus far. He gives three teams a sell, with Villanova leading that group because he thinks they won’t be able to keep up their tremendous play all season. He also is selling Marquette because they have been unable to score effectively, and he thinks St. John’s has been terribly disappointing with its over-reliance on D’Angelo Harrison and several bad losses so far this season. Overall, there were some positive signs for most of the teams and this was a fun read for fans.
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Takeaways from the Big East Opening Day

Posted by George Hershey on January 1st, 2014

What an opener for the new Big East. The league had two overtime thrillers, there was an upset, and all three of the new members impressed. Here are some takeaways from a great day of hoops.

St. John’s vs. Xavier

St. John’s is great in transition, but struggles mightily in the halfcourt:  The Johnnies rushed out to a big lead in the first eight minutes, in large part to their transition offense. They scored their first seven points in transition off of turnovers or running after rebounds. Throughout the game it was evident that the halfcourt offense was not working well and often times ended with a contested jump shot. The Red Storm made a push in the second half by pushing the ball up-court, but ended up settling for tough shots as the game winded down. D’Angelo Harrison, Rysheed Jordan, and Orlando Sanchez all are capable of running the break and Jordan had a great game as he got to the rim, hit some outside shots, and showed a nice pull-up jumper. Many talk about this team’s great talent, but their halfcourt offense is limiting their ability to use their athleticism. If the Johnnies want to win go from an under-achieving team to an NCAA Tournament one, they need to get out in transition, while they improve their offensive sets.

Seton Hall vs. Providence 

Seton Hall can get out of the cellar in the new Big East: What a game! A great double overtime thriller on opening night. Seton Hall showed incredible fight and resolve yesterday as they saw their double digit lead dissolve in the final minutes. Some questionable calls did not help them in the extra sessions, but they made winning plays when it mattered. With starting center Eugene Teague our for the game, Kevin Willard was without his best post player. The Pirates forced the Friars into 14 turnovers, eight in the first half, which helped create  most of the early offense. They limited Bryce Cotton to 1-8 from three and the Friars struggled all night to score. The win should give the team a ton of confidence going forward as Brian Oliver, Brandon Mobley, and Jaren Sina stepped up to make crucial baskets. Sina came off the bench in overtime to hit a three with two minutes left to spark the Pirates. Oliver was the player of the game as his hot shooting provided most of the offense in the second half and Mobley came up time after time, especially with his three free throws with a minute left. This team may have suffered injuries to every significant player thus far, but their win over a high quality opponent while shorthanded is impressive, and there is no reason they cannot build off this win.

Smith Should Be A Bigger Force For Georgetown

DePaul vs. Georgetown:

Joshua Smith needs to produce more offensively: The big fella came in and dominated in his first game against Oregon, but since he was beaten up by Kansas, he has struggled mightily, and yesterday was no difference. Against a smaller and inexperienced front line, he only had five points and one assist, without even recording a rebound. There is no reason why Smith, who has been heralded as an excellent low post scorer since he arrived in UCLA, should not average at least 10 points during conference play. The Hoyas have struggled at times to score so far and Smith is a player who can provide instant offense. He also can create for his teammates by attracting double teams and finding them. Smith needs to get to the line, to get opponents in foul trouble and also get some easy points. The Hoyas have a good team with many pieces that make a winning team, but they could use a player you can dump it down to and let go to work on the block.

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Is This an Older But Wiser St. John’s to Start Big East Play?

Posted by Joe Dzuback on December 31st, 2013

Is St. John’s 8-4 record at this point last season versus their current 9-3 a true measure of growth for the Red Storm? According to coach Steve Lavin, the answer is no. The take on the Johnnies going into this season was one of a talented, but undisciplined, roster. Perhaps one of the two or three best teams in the conference, a squad capable of beating anyone in the Big East, but first they had to stop beating themselves.

Steve Lavin and St. John's are gearing up for conference play. (AP)

Steve Lavin and St. John’s are gearing up for conference play. (AP)

Granted, last year’s team was young with just over half a season’s worth of experience (0.64 years), but chalking their 17-16 record up to youth misses more than half the story. Suspensions, the most damaging of which was D’Angelo Harrison’s six-game hiatus at the end of the season — during which the Red Storm compiled an 0-5 record to close out conference play and crush any chance of an NCAA bid — was not the only example of time missed due to discipline problems. Baylor transfer Jamal Branch, eligible at the end of the fall 2012 semester, served a one-game suspension in early March, just over two months after first donning a Red Storm uniform.

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