Judging by the spate of troubling news that afflicted St. John’s during the preseason, it was only natural to assume the Red Storm would again fail to reach the expectations set for the team since its core entered as freshmen four years ago.
JaKarr Sampson entering the NBA draft after his sophomore year was surprising but not totally unexpected, but the ineligibility of Keith Thomas stunted the squad’s frontcourt, and it is still completely unknown whether Adonis De La Rosa will play in 2015. Thomas, more so than De La Rosa, was expected to play a focal role in Steve Lavin’s fifth season in Queens, and whispered questions — Does this team have enough depth? Who will defensively help Chris Obekpa on the interior? Is Lavin the right coach to build a successful St. John’s program? — began to percolate.
So after Syracuse’s Ron Patterson took a meaningless three at the end of Saturday’s game, a contest that was close until a barrage of Phil Greene threes helped St. John’s pull away for the 69-57 win, the Red Storm had won their sixth game of the season and broke the barrier of the AP top 25 for the first time since Lavin’s first season.
What to make of this newly-minted St. John’s team? This squad has stayed the same offensively since Lavin took over four years ago. Their half-court struggles will cause even the most milquetoast person to develop ulcers, and their tendency to attempt too many two-point jumpers has unbelievably grown this season (43.4%, up a few percentage points from a year ago). Even though the team scored 1.15 points per possession in a commanding win against Fairleigh Dickinson last night, in short, they are offensively still a wreck. Without Greene’s succession of shots (or some bailout threes by D’Angelo Harrison), SJU might have lost at the Carrier Dome. And St. John’s isn’t just failing to score against stout defenses — they aren’t offensively obliterating teams, scoring 1.03 PPP — so if opponents do find cracks within the Red Storm’s defense, it could be an ugly stretch for Lavin’s squad.
However, based on the season’s first eight games, that defense has been nearly impregnable — even Gonzaga, who defeated the Johnnies during the preseason NIT, managed only 1.06 PPP. During the latter half of January and through February last season, the Red Storm were the hottest team within the Big East. St. John’s hasn’t reached that pinnacle yet, but this defense has looked incredibly stingy, despite Lavin using essentially six players (only ten DI teams allot fewer their bench fewer minutes than SJU).
This lack of depth has forced Lavin to utilize zone more often. When he arrived in Queens, Lavin often touted his match-up zone, one that paired man principles to a 2-3 zone, so the veteran laden squad should be comfortable operating within that scheme. Opponents are also finding it difficult to score when SJU transitions to man defense, with a significant downtick in fouls being a major factor for their low man-to-man points per possession (0.72). It’s debatable whether SJU misses Orlando Sanchez’s inside-out scoring touch, or God’sgift Achiuwa’s hustle, but what is clear is both players couldn’t stay on the floor, committing a combined 8.3 fouls per 40 minutes. Minus those needless fouls (Rysheed Jordan has also helped the cause by committing one fewer foul per 40), and not only does the Red Storm’s defensive free throw rate rank with the nation’s top 40, but the team is allowing fewer attempts from the line (it also helps that opponents are only making 60% of their free throws in 2015).
Chris Obekpa is the standout defensive star, and with good cause — the junior is again terrorizing front court players with his wingspan, blocking nearly 13% of teams’ shots around the rim — but a Johnny who should receive more credit is Sir’Dominic Pointer, and specifically his energy on the defensive glass.
The Red Storm will never totally keep opponents off the boards, but their defensive rebounding rate was a woeful 32% in Big East play last season; Pointer is now leading the team in defensive rebounding percentage, fulfilling the role that would have been filled by Thomas and De La Rosa, and one which allows Obekpa to concentrate on his short shorts shot blocking skills. This, in turn, further fuels St. John’s defensive half court pressure — during the three-game stretch against Minnesota, Gonzaga, and Syracuse, SJU forced opponents to turn over a quarter of their possessions.
St. John’s is best in transition, and after four seasons, it seems Lavin has figured out the best way to ensure easy buckets while also masking his lack of a bench. The Johnnies are utilizing a press more frequently in 2015, and their transition defense is much more stout that it was a year ago. According to Hoop-Math, SJU’s transition effective field goal percentage is 41%, much lower than the nearly 50% the Johnnies allowed in ’14.
During the post-game press conference, Jim Boeheim was succinct describing his team’s loss, “We are either going to make some shots, or we are going to lose against good teams.” St. John’s has so far forced teams to miss, or alter, their shots, and if Lavin wants to again reach the NCAA tournament, and earn that contract extension that was rumored towards the end of last season, defense will have to carry his squad.
Matt Giles covers primarily the Big East conference for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Matt on Twitter @Hudsongiles .