Defense Fueling St. John’s Second Half Surge?

Expectations were too high for St. John’s this preseason. Steve Lavin had consistently maintained that his team would gel by February, but of course, it is easy to dismiss that as mere coach’s talk, and then downplay and downgrade a team when they drop their first five Big East games.

Ken Pomeroy wrote in early January about the concept of talent — whether it applied to the Red Storm and if that so-called ‘talent’ brought to Queens by Lavin would actually translate into a conference contender — and the easiest narrative to spin was another lost season for Lavin and his staff.

When John broke down each of SJU’s lineups through mid-January, he arrived at some interesting conclusions: the most used lineup, which featured three guards and Orlando Sanchez, was offensively proficient but was a defensive sieve, and the best defensive lineup paired Chris Obekpa with JaKarr Sampson and Sir’Dominic Pointer. As St. John’s enter the second half of Big East play, it is illuminating that while Lavin is still continuing to tinker with his rotations — in the last four games, Lavin has used three different starting fives — the Johnnies are perhaps the Big East’s hottest team. Following last night’s win over Providence, it would appear Lavin’s prognostication might be true as the Red Storm have suddenly transformed into a defensive vice.

The team has won four of their last five conference games (discounting the non-conference win over Dartmouth), and the Red Storm’s defensive showing in those five contests has been particularly stingy. Overall in Big East play, the team’s defensive efficiency rating is more than one point per possession, but against Seton Hall, Butler, Creighton, Marquette, and Providence, SJU is allowing a scant .97 PPP, a defensive reversal that has positioned the Red Storm for a potential February rise. So what explains this sudden stand? The team is still leading the conference and nation in block rate, but is now forcing a high percentage of turnovers — the team’s turnover rate has risen to nearly a quarter of their opponents’ possessions. The team has also discovered the benefits of body control, and has significantly curtailed their hacking: through nine games, their free throw rate is a whopping 48%, but during these past five conference games, that rate has shrunk to 35%. The combination of shot-blocking, turnovers, and a lack of fouls has keyed their defensive rediscovery, but the real key is the near total abandonment of the match-up zone.

When Lavin was hired in 2010, he immediately implemented a match-up 2-3 zone, an amorphous defense with man principles. However, when run by this current squad, the zone proved way too porous: Xavier skewered the zone in the second half of their New Year’s Eve tilt, scoring 1.12 points per possession. While it took some time transitioning to a man defense — their OPPP was 1.10 until this week’s drop to 1.04 — the shift has obviously proved beneficial. Help defense is essential in a zone, and it was clear watching SJU that there often too many lapses for the zone to be effective. Lavin’s switch to man makes sense: his squad is uber athletic, and while opponents took advantage of the zone’s holes, there aren’t many teams that can overcome SJU’s athleticism in one-on-one matchups.

A by-product of the defensive change is the drop in opponents’ two-point field goal percentages. Those five squads connected on 46% of their twos, a decrease that can be explained by a simple combination: shot-blocking + steals + a defense that plays to SJU’s strengths = difficult offensive possessions. However, what is intriguing about this defensive stand is that the team is still allowing opponents free reign over the offensive glass. SJU’s consistent bugbear is their inability to limit additional possessions — Marquette grabbed a remarkable 21 offensive rebounds in their weekend loss, and PC walloped SJU on the glass, hauling in 20 rebounds — and despite St. John’s relatively impressive effective height, they just cannot control the defensive boards. The Friars were stymied in the half-court by the Johnnies, but since they controlled the glass, they were able to mount a comeback thanks to a few easy put-backs. It will be interesting whether the failure to hit the defensive glass haunts SJU: teams like Providence and Xavier need offensive boards to help propel their scoring, and even with the Red Storm’s turnover inducing and shot-erasing man defense, if opponents can counter within a few feet of the bucket, this recent defensive success, and winning streak, could soon vanish.

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