Big East Tempo-Free Metrics: Week Seven

We have frequently written about St. John’s this season, but if it isn’t clear from reading our most frequent tempo-free posts, the Red Storm is arguably the nation’s hottest team. Following Tuesday’s second half beat-down (and win) against Butler, the Johnnies are now 8-6 in Big East play — an astounding record considering they started 0-5 — and have won seven out of their last eight games. As we explained in an earlier tempo-free post, an underlying theme of SJU’s rise is their stingy defense, an ability to defend without fouling while also consistently generating steals, but as we will detail below, the Johnnies might have solved their offensive issues within the arc.

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19-Feb      
Creighton 12-2 1.21 1.03
Villanova 11-2 1.18 1.04
St. John’s 8-6 1.06 1.00
Xavier 8-5 1.12 1.08
Providence 7-7 1.07 1.07
Marquette 7-6 1.04 1.05
Georgetown 6-7 1.02 1.05
Seton Hall 4-8 1.02 1.07
Butler 2-12 .96 1.10
DePaul 2-12 .98 1.17

A few takeaways from this past week’s games:

Davante Gardner isn’t the best Golden Eagle this season. In an early February loss to St. John’s, Jamil Wilson had the worst game in all three of his Marquette seasons. The senior forward scored just one point on five field goal attempts, and based on how lethargic and simply tentative Wilson looked while on the court, coach Buzz Williams sat Wilson during the entire second half. Since that contest, though, the 6’7″ forward has been on an offensive tear, converting 47% of his twos and 52% of his long-range attempts. It’s no secret the transition of full-time point guard duties to Derrick Wilson has not been smooth, and a casualty of this change is Davante Gardner’s touches; Williams wants at least one paint touch per possession, but Wilson and Golden Eagles’ backcourt have struggled to find Gardner on the block. His usage rate is up (but not by as much as one would’ve expected) this season, and the big hasn’t attempted ten or more shots since the end of January. In their most recent loss, to Creighton, Garnder took only three two-point field goal attempts; since Marquette’s perimeter game is again lacking — for the second straight season, Marquette is taking few threes and isn’t converting that small sample size (less than 30% from deep in Big East play) — so defenses are able sag a bit, packing the paint and force Gardner to catch the ball farther from the bucket than desired. Gardner’s inability to get a touch is why Wilson’s play is crucial if Marquette make a final five-game push. He is the only Eagle capable of creating his own offense – just 47% of his attempted twos are assisted — and he can score from both long and mid-range. Wilson is currently the catalyst for MU’s offense, and if he can continue to create halfcourt spacing and defensive imbalance, it’ll only benefit Gardner and the team’s offensive efficiency.

A simplistic reason for St. John’s rise. We will delve into the team’s surge in a post prior to this weekend’s Villanova game, but one can spot the moment Steve Lavin’s squad turned this season’s corner. Against Seton Hall in late January, the Johnnies made 26 of their 45 two-point attempts, and since then, the team has converted 50 or more percent of their twos in each Big East game and is scoring 1.10 PPP. Through the first five conference contests, St. John’s made an anemic 40% of their shots within the arc, a percentage which has dramatically shifted to 53% during their streak. Even in their first matchup with Creighton, a road loss, SJU made 50% of their twos. John outlined several weeks ago that JaKarr Sampson was the key to solving the team’s then-offensive malaise, and his piece proved prophetic. During the last nine games, Sampson is making 50% of his twos (up from 27.5% at the start of Big East play) and is using a blend of uber-athleticism and refined shooting touch to both get to the basket and convert from mid-range (typically the short corner).

Can opponents take away the 3, and still beat, Creighton? Jay Wright had to alter his defensive strategy when his squad traveled to Omaha this past weekend. The first time the teams met, in mid-January, the Bluejays made 21 threes, and blitzed Nova in the first half. In their second match-up, Wright decided to defend the three-point line, limit CU’s long-range attempts, and force Greg McDermott’s team to beat Nova within the arc, but this altered strategy didn’t work either: Creighton connected on 66% of their twos, and scored 1.46 PPP. Is it possible, then, to take away the three-ball from Creighton and still win? One Big East team has been successful with this gameplan — St. John’s — and it is interesting to see how Lavin’s team stymied CU. Chris Obekpa and Orlando Sanchez typically guarded, and never left the side of, Ethan Wragge; the two never helped, or hedged on screens, and shadowed the big. St. John’s also made a decision to go under screens set for Austin Chatman, Grant Gibbs, and Jahenns Manigat, figuring the team’s first option is to get Doug McDermott a touch and would be less likely to hoist a three — rather than fighting over the screens, SJU defenders were better able to guard the drive. The other key to preventing a Creighton scoring deluge is to pressure the ball. Creighton doesn’t turn the ball over often — only 15.1% of their possessions result in a giveaway — is paramount — in three of the four CU losses, the team has committed double-digit turnovers.

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.

Continue reading “Defense Fueling St. John’s Second Half Surge?”

Previewing St. John’s vs. Columbia with Rumble In the Garden

Another weekend, another triple-header at Barclays in Brooklyn, NY. College basketball fans could get used to this development. The first game of the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Festival is the most intriguing locally with St. John’s taking on Columbia. Continue reading “Previewing St. John’s vs. Columbia with Rumble In the Garden”

Three Questions: St. John’s and Seton Hall

The Big East holds their first post-realignment media day today, an event usually held on Central Park South that now takes place at Chelsea Piers. While a fair number of the familiar faces will be missed, from Jim Boeheim to Jamie Dixon, the new-look conference still holds a significant amount of the local college spotlight.

St. John’s hasn’t been mentioned as a favorite for the Big East regular season title, but the Red Storm have the most amount of returning talent on the roster and have the potential to spend much of January and February in the conference’s upper echelon. Much of the anticipation surrounding Seton Hall centers around the team’s stellar 2014 recruiting class, but Kevin Willard’s group is finally healthy and possesses the Big East’s best all-around player. In order to better portend what may transpire with both the Johnnies and the Pirates in 2013-14, here are the three questions that are crucial to the success of each squad.

Seton Hall
Who scores other than Fuquan Edwin?

Now entering his final college season, Fuquan Edwin, in my opinion, is the most valuable in the Big East — no other player means more to his squad than the 6’6″ wing. Not only did Edwin lead the Pirates in scoring (16.5 ppg) but his points were built on efficient shooting — 46% from two and 41% from beyond the arc — and he was more aggressive as the offense’s primary option, using screens more frequently while then getting into the lane and drawing nearly two more fouls per 40 minutes. Continuing with the accolades, Edwin is also the conference’s most-effective on-ball defender. Seton Hall should be better than their 2013 record (3-15) indicated — Aaron Cosby and Kyle Smyth are the only two significant players missing from the 2014 roster — but a trio of Pirates need to inherit some of the scoring burden to ensure that record rises. There are two immediate options, one being Eugene Teague, a 6’9″ forward whose improved offseason conditioning — he lost nearly thirty pounds — will allow him to better finish on the block and second-chance possessions (Teague grabbed 12% of Seton Hall’s misses). The other is Patrik Auda, a big who redshirted last season and can stretch the floor and rarely turns the ball over. The key, though, is Brandon Mobley; the junior was oft-injured during Big East play, but his playing style — a wing who can shoot the three but is most effective working without the ball in the paint — complements the offensive skills Edwin, Teague, and the other Pirates bring to the court.

Will Seton Hall continue to rely on threes?
In 2012, roughly 30% of Seton Hall’s points came from three-pointers, but that percentage rose drastically last year (37%, which ranked thirteenth in the nation), and while the Hall were suited to bomb away from beyond the arc — the team made 36.7% of their attempts — they struggled to score when teams failed to stray from the three-point line (or when SHU had an off game). The now departed Smyth and Cosby combined to shoot 38% from three, and since his bigs saw more of the trainer than they did their coach, Willard was forced to depend on long-range shooting. The Hall’s healthy frontcourt means Willard’s offensive gameplan should shift in 2014 as Willard reengineers the offense to cater the Hall’s young true points (Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs) while also emphasizing post touches for a svelte Teague and perhaps utilizing more on pick and rolls involving the team’s multiple mobile bigs.

Can the extra inches help the defense?
The most interesting difference between the 2012 and 2013 Seton Hall squads is the disparity in defensive efficiency. While the ’12 team held Big East opponents under one point per possession, the ’13 Pirates struggled mightily to keep points off the board, allowing 1.07 OPPP (one of the conference’s worst rates). Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore were the only Pirates whose eligibility expired in last spring, so what happened? Theodore had a knack for aggressively pressuring ball-handler, and as a tandem, Theodore and Edwin generated countless steals. However, no one filled Theodore’s void and SHU was much less tenacious on the perimeter, which failed to hide the team’s real weakness; their lack of interior size meant allowing countless additional possessions. When any team isn’t forcing turnovers and giving up offensive boards, the OPPP is going to sky-rocket. Edwin will still fly around the court, picking both his man’s pocket while also causing turnovers with his help defense, but SHU’s defensive turnaround starts with the frontcourt, specifically the return of Mobley, Auda, Teague, and a now bulky Aaron Geramipoor.

St. John’s
What is Chris Obekpa’s impact in year two?
Judging by the minutes Steve Lavin doled out during St. John’s European trip, sophomore Chris Obekpa may come off the bench in 2013-14. While some may consider such a move shocking — how can a player, who blocked over 15% of opponents’ attempts, sit? — Obekpa was extremely limited on offense a year ago. The 6’9″ Obekpa had the lowest offensive rating of any Johnny that used more than 50 percent of the team’s minutes, and his range was essentially the space immediately surrounding the hoop. His main offseason goal had to center around developing any sort of post offense. St. John’s lacked a player capable of finishing on the block in 2013, and while Orlando Sanchez and God’sgift Achiuwa both have that potential to provide that balance, Obekpa needs at least one low-post counter move. Even if he continues to struggle scoring against Big East frontcourts, Lavin will still play him — he provides an instant impact on defense — but since SJU’s offense was truly stagnant in 2013, Obekpa needs to provide (and not just take away) points.

How many minutes will Rysheed Jordan use?
The addition of Rysheed Jordan allows Steve Lavin an option he has not had since he landed that monster recruiting class in 2011: he can now play both Jamal Branch and D’Angelo Harrison off the ball. Jordan’s supreme athleticism means he can go away from SJU screens and still get to the rim. Jordan’s game is built for north to south penetration, and all five sets of eyeballs will focus on Jordan when he steps on to the court (according to ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla, Jordan is “…good enough to start yesterday.” While both juniors have various isolation moves, and can create their own offense, they often need a pick to turn the corner on a defender, while Jordan’s presence will draw defenders from both guards (and the other Johnnies) and create openings that didn’t exist a year ago.

Does St. John’s need JaKarr Sampson to take jumpshots?
In late August, I wondered whether St. John’s would continue to take a high volume of two-point field goals — only one other DI team depended as heavily on generating offense off twos as SJU, and the Red Storm attempted 269 shots from between 17 feet and the three-point line (and made just 35% of those shots). ESPN’s John Gasaway recently wondered the same question, and asked Lavin if his players would continue to attempt those high-risk (but low-benefit) shots? According to Lavin, “The numbers that you’re looking at? They’re going to change … [and] it will be because we finally have some balance, including a perimeter attack … finishing at the rim was a challenge for our guys, and so was perimeter shooting, as you’ve indicated. Numbers aren’t going to drive or dictate everything you do, but they sure are a reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of your team. That’s what you saw with us last year.” What is intriguing about Lavin’s answer is that Sampson, when I spoke with him a few weeks ago, was fairly certain he’ll expand his jump-shooting repertoire this season. “I improved my range a lot this year and you’ll definitely see me make a lot more threes this year,” he said, adding that his main focus is still attacking the rim off the bounce. The arrival of Sanchez (and the return of Achiuwa) means Sampson will likely be used more as a 3 (he was most often placed at the 4 a year ago), so the opportunity is there for Sampson to take more two-point jump shots, but is that needed? Sampson and Jordan are the two Johnnies best able to get to the rim and finish, and with the potential openings Jordan (and Max Hooper) can create, Lavin needs Sampson to focus on converting around the bucket and getting to the free throw line.

Matt Giles is a reporter for New York Magazine and has contributed to College Basketball Prospectus 2012-13, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, the New York Times, BuzzFeed, and Salon. You can follow Matt on Twitter @HudsonGiles.

From Harvard’s Bench to SJU’s Shooting Savior

Max Hooper’s contribution to the 2011-12 Harvard squad lasted about twelve seconds. While Hooper’s stat line from his freshman season indicates the 6’6″ wing played four minutes — two in a preseason game against MIT and another two versus Utah — that sixth of a minute was the only moment Hooper did something other than run up and down the court, taking a baseline pass at the top of the key and missing on the only field goal attempt in his Harvard career. But that contribution belies how important Hooper is to his newest team, St. John’s, this season; the wing transferred to the Big East school following his freshman year and is a major reason why the Johnnies are seen as a potential conference title contender.

“My job is to get shots on the court,” said Hooper recently at Dribble for the Cure, an annual event hosted by the school and the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation that has raised more than $50,000 this year. “But I bring more to the table than shooting. I am a very cerebral player so I feel I can use that to make plays for my teammates.”

The wing took the long route to Queens. A transfer during his high school career brought Hooper to the storied Mater Dei program, and while various recruiting articles linked Hooper to Notre Dame and Stanford, it wasn’t until he spent a year at Brewster Academy (in an effort to boost his profile) that he committed to Harvard, the one program that reportedly showed consistent interest. However, it proved difficult for Hooper to find playing time in the Crimson’s crowded backcourt, and he settled on St. John’s a few weeks after announcing decision to leave Cambridge.

Why did he chose the Red Storm, a team similarly stacked with guards? The presence of JaKarr Sampson, the highly-ranked forward who recommitted to St. John’s last spring who was Hooper’s roommate at Brewster. “When we roomed at Brewster, it was the first time I met a true, knock-down shooter,” claims Sampson. “You don’t think a shooter like Max can get better, but his shot has gotten better over the years.” Hooper had also played with, and against, current Johnnies at iS8, an annual summer tournament held in a tiny middle school gym in Queens — Hooper was placed on the same team with Sampson and D’Angelo Harrison. “Moe Harkless had a team,” said Hooper, “and he told JaKarr to come down and play and bring a teammate. It was an invaluable experience.”

There have always been concerns that Hooper did not possess the athleticism to compete at the high-major level, but as his mentor Miles Simon, the former Arizona star who now doubles as a skills’ trainer and college basketball analyst at ESPN, told the NY Post this spring, Hooper has transformed his body and become a better athlete. Hooper agrees with Simon, saying, “Last year was a good opportunity to take advantage of sitting out. When the team was on a road trip, the strength coach would keep working me out, and I could concentrate on getting extra lifts on game days.”

Hooper has always possessed the reputation as a long-range threat — during the team’s overseas trip this August, Hooper connected on 10 (of 13) threes in a win, and as John detailed, Hooper’s offensive rating in Europe (147.6) led the squad — so it will be interesting how coach Steve Lavin uses the wing. Even if he struggles defending potential quicker wings, his shooting touch is a sorely needed asset, one that essentially ensures he sees quality playing time. The Red Storm made nearly 25% of their threes a season ago, and the lack of outside shooting hampered the team’s offensive efficiency, clogging the paint and negating SJU’s overall athleticism.

Hooper foresees himself used in a variety of scenarios, including both in transition and in the half-court, and believes the ability of Jamal Branch and Rysheed Jordan to break defenders off the bounce will be integral to his game. “Both Rysheed and Jamal are always able to get into the lane, draw my man, and then kick to me for a spot-up. Regardless of who is on the court with me, my teammates do a good job setting me up.” Hooper is also skilled enough as a ball-handler that Lavin may also depend more frequently on having Sampson or Orlando Sanchez set a pick for the sophomore — both bigs can roll and then catch and finish and traffic, or give Hooper a fraction of daylight needed for an attempt.

The potential pairing of Hooper and Marco Bourgault also cannot be understated; though Bourgault only averaged ten or so minutes per game, he did convert 40% of his threes in a span of five games, and is another option to provide interior spacing. “Hoop is such a good shooter that teams are going to have to chase him off the line,” said Sampson, “But his shooting will open up our offense a lot this season.”