Bevon Robin was at Madison Square Garden. Not in person, though the former Fordham guard may have caught his Rams take on St. John’s in the stands. What I mean is that the Johnnies’ play, early in the first half of Sunday’s game, was so uninspired that the intra-city match-up had the makings of a classic trap game.
Fourteen years ago, Robin scored 17 points, including the game-winning layup, in an upset over the Johnnies, a team then ranked 24th nationally. When the Rams took 16-11 lead early during Sunday’s game, it was almost deja vu. St. John’s was again ranked 24th, and the Rams’ latest star, Eric Pascall, a freshman in the body of a weight-room hardened senior, was showcasing the skill set that should help him win the Atlantic 10 newcomer of the year award.
And then Chris Obekpa got tossed — the center picked up two technical fouls, the second coming with nearly four minutes remaining in the first half — and Madison Square Garden recognized an upset might be brewing. However, St. John’s response to the Rams’ initial success was to completely and totally smother the Rams.
The Johnnies unleashed a defense that held Tom Pecora’s team to just 0.74 points per possession over the final 24 minutes, and St. John’s won their eighth game of the season in commanding fashion, 74-53.
“The positive was that the group that was available found a way to win the game in a dominating fashion,” said St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin. “I was pleased with the response of our team to the disappointment of losing Chris.”
Here are several takeaways from the Red Storm’s win:
St. John’s defense is just as stingy without one of DI’s top shot blockers: As previously mentioned, from the moment Obeka left the game to the final buzzer, St. John’s hamstrung the Rams to 0.74 PPP, but overall, Fordham’s PPP was 0.82. Even though Fordham isn’t an offensively explosive squad, that is undoubtedly an impressive defensive performance. With Obekpa in the locker room, Lavin used a small lineup of four guards and Sir’Dominic Pointer as the ‘5,’ and instructed the team to utilize a full-court man press. The combination of those two changes helped St. John’s flummox, harass, and utterly deflate Fordham.
When the game tipped, Fordham ran its offense methodically, and appeared thoroughly prepared for the speed, athleticism, and length of the Red Storm’s defense, but when St. John’s went small, Fordham’s skillful planning was upended. “When CO was out, we went to our press and we caused a little trouble,” D’Angelo Harrison said. “We turned up the heat on them, and got some stops.”
Obekpa will play on Friday when St. Mary’s travels to Queens, but this tactical lineup shift could be utilized more frequently by the Johnnies this year. Lavin made a point during the post game presser that his St. John’s teams have gone small before, and while that is true, they have never had to play a game’s majority without a significant interior presence. For them to do so against a spunky Fordham squad is clearly a stepping stone for continued defensive excellence in 2015. Said Lavin, “We’ll continue to explore our smaller, pressing units where we can play baseline to baseline in an attacking, up-tempo style, but it is nice to have the luxury to go big to match up in certain stretches of the game against the bruising front lines of the Big East.”
Rysheed Jordan still comes off the bench, but is peaking: For the fourth straight game, St. John’s sophomore Rysheed Jordan started on the bench, entering the game after four or so minutes, and he immediately put his mark on the St. John’s win. Even though both Jamal Branch and Harrison claimed during the presser that this wasn’t the best they’ve seen Jordan play, the guard was the best player on MSG’s floor, scoring 24 points in an array of pull-ups, long-range jumpers, and slicing acrobatic drives into the lane. The Rams didn’t have a player quick, or physical, enough to stay in front of Jordan, and as we detailed a few months ago, Jordan has completely reworked his jump shot, making three of fives threes and several other deep twos. “His jump shot is getting way better,” said Harrison. “When you have to double him, or help off other people to guard him, it’s going to be tough to play us.”
While Jordan’s perimeter game is still very much a work in progress — before Sunday’s win, Jordan had made just eight threes and was converting 32% from deep — he has clearly expanded his game. As a freshman, a third of Jordan’s field goal attempts were two-point field goals, and the guard only made 32% of those shots; a year later, though, and nearly 40% of his attempts are jumpers within the arc, and he is converting 37%, a notable improvement (stats courtesy of Hoop-Math.com). Coupled with his determination to get to the free throw line — Jordan is drawing almost seven fouls per 40 minutes — and the soph continues to transform into one of the Big East’s toughest defensive match-ups, even if he is coming off the bench, a strategy that Lavin will likely continue to employ. “I like the way [Rysheed] is playing,” said Lavin. “[As a coach], you have to hold [your players] accountable to their potential … but I like where the group is right now, not only Rysheed individually.”
St. John’s might have solved their shooting woes: A brief caveat: the Johnnies’ last two wins were against Fairleigh Dickinson and Fordham, two teams that aren’t going to challenge in their respective conferences, but St. John’s offense, specifically its perimeter shooting, is turning into a strength. Specifically, Harrison, Jordan, and Phil Greene IV are locked in from the outside, and the entire team appears to have somewhat mastered the art of the mid-range jump shot. According to Hoop-Math.com, 44% of the Red Storm’s attempts are within 19′, and the team is making 39% of those shots, which is the most efficient a St. John’s team has been since Lavin became coach. It still isn’t great that the Johnnies are taking these many low efficiency shots, but since St. John’s has struggled mightily outside of the paint, it has to help the offense that they are making a few of these shots (which the team is converting at 0.78 points per shot, which isn’t great, but you know, progress!). Whether it was extra practice sessions, patience, or just a blip that could revert to the mean as the season wears on, St. John’s has found a perimeter touch.
Fordham could have used Jon Severe: Antwoine Anderson and Chris Sengfelder showed flashes, but Fordham desperately needs a consistent secondary scorer to complement Paschall. Severe could have been that player, but since he has indefinitely stepped away from the team, another Ram has to help deflect defenses from swamping the freshman, who scored 14 points against St. John’s. While he cooled off in the second half — Jordan, in particular, guarded him and did a nice job using his own strength, which Lavin referred to as ‘wiry,’ to keep Paschall from bullying him — the wing is going to be an A-10 star. He has the foot speed and handle to break opponents down off the bounce, and a few Johnnies swiped air when crossed up by Paschall. He also has a developing outside shot that he showcased a few times on Sunday, though, his six three-point attempts seem a bit high for a player who can, and should, live on dribble-drives and interior scoring. Paschall has a beefy body, but that heft belies what is a surprising quickness, and without Severe, or another Ram having an on night, Paschall’s load will be significant this season.
Matt Giles cover the Big East, as well as other conferences, for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on twitter at @hudsongiles.