Welcome to the most comprehensive post I've ever done here on South Orange Juice! Well, maybe not- my Big East Preview was pretty comprehensive, but this is the first time I've posted thoughts AND a preview AND a Q&A with Rumble in the Garden all at the same time.
So here we go! First, 3 thoughts on the Pitt game:
- Herb's House
Herb Pope was, quite simply, amazing for the Pirates. He posted by far his strongest effort since Big East play began with 19 PTS and 14 REB with 3 AST, 3 BLK and 2 STL. Plus, he made his only three-pointer and made ALL SIX OF HIS FREE THROWS. Herb was locked in against his hometown college team, as I had an inkling that he would be, and he posted a near-double-double in the first half alone (9 PTS/9 REB). He also avoided foul trouble, a crucial part of this game because in the first half especially, it seemed like everyone was in foul trouble.
- Boom Goes the Backcourt
I could look back in the box scores from this season, but I don't think I'll find a better combination of both Jordan Theodore and Aaron Cosby playing as well as they did against the Panthers. Cosby was locked in from deep, posting a career-best 19 PTS and 5 threes with 3 REB and 2 STL, while Theodore had 15 PTS, 9 AST and just 1 turnover. If Theodore was the maestro of this game, Cosby was definitely the violin section with his sweet outside stroke. In case you're wondering, Pope was the brass in this analogy.
- The Run
With 7 minutes remaining in the second half after trading buckets with the Panthers for the entire half, Pitt finally opened up a 6 point lead. Fuquan Edwin then fouled out of the game on a strange call by Pat Driscoll on the baseline; he ruled that Edwin, who ran over Talib Zanna while making a floater on the baseline, put the shot in before he ran Zanna over, counting the basket, but charging the offensive foul, Edwin's 5th, as well.
That began the run that saved the season for Seton Hall for the moment. After Edwin's bucket, Cosby got one of his steals by picking a Tray Woodall pass clean and laying it in. With the lead down to two, and the shot clock winding down, Theodore drove baseline, tried to pass to Pope near the basket, got the ball back after it was deflected, and hit a fadeaway three as the buzzer went off. The crowd went bonkers. After Woodall missed, the Pirates got out in transition and Theodore found Haralds Karlis in the left corner. He knocked down a three, the crowd went even more bonkers, Pitt called timeout. A 10-0 run in the span of 3 minutes. Awesome.
Now, the Pirates face a quick turnaround for a Valentine's Day matchup with the St. John's Red Storm. And here's what you need to know about 'em:
2011-12 record: 10-15 (4-9 Big East)
All-time series record: 33-54
Last Meeting: 3/3/11 (84-70 SHU W)
These aren't your older brother's Red Storm. Following last year's resurgence under Steve Lavin with that veteran roster, St. John's looks completely different.
For starters, the Red Storm have only 6 scholarship players to work with. The reasons for that are myriad- two of the highly touted freshman class weren't eligible due to academics (JaKarr Sampson, Norvel Pelle), a third (JUCO transfer Nurideen Lindsey) transferred to be closer to home, and the lone upperclassman (Malik Stith) just up and left. Even with Amir Garrett becoming eligible this semester, the Johnnies are extremely thin, especially up front, making this probably the first game all season the Pirates have the depth edge.
Individually, St. John's talent is pretty good. Moe Harkless is a specimen of an athlete with a knack for scoring the ball (he messed around and got 30 PTS and 13 REB.... AT DUKE). He's also averaging over 1.5 BLK and STL, making him a pretty clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year in the Big East. D'Angelo Harrison is a shooter with a picturesque outside shot who leads the Red Storm in scoring at nearly 17 PTS. He's also a very good free throw shooter who gets to the line 6 times a game. With this inside-outside duo, St. John's has a bright future.
Joining Harrison and Harkless are forwards Sir'Dominic Pointer and Amir Garrett, point guard Phil Greene, and JUCO center God'sgift Achiuwa. Pointer and Garrett are more athletes than basketball players right now, but each has potential. Pointer is a good defender in the post as well. Greene was forced into the starting PG spot when Lindsey left, and he is a point guard at his best in transition and attacking the rim. He doesn't have much of a jumper yet, but like everyone on the roster, he's a great athlete. Achiuwa is a physical center who can bang down low, rebound, and make shots in close. He was recently relegated to the bench to allow St. John's to be more effective in transition.
Seton Hall will win if:
- They take care of the ball. St John's plays a pressure defense that is always active. They extend this defense out to between the circles to try and force turnovers and run, so the onus is on the Pirate ballhandlers to be solid.
- They drive to the basket. St. John's has 6 scholarship players. That means that if the Pirates can get the Red Storm in foul trouble, especially Achiuwa, that will work to their advantage. They can do this by driving to the hoop rather than settle for jumpers. That's not to say Seton Hall shouldn't use their outside shots, but the mentality has to be taking the ball to the rim.
St. John's will win if:
- They run, run, run. Seton Hall has a size and a depth advantage in this game. St. John's can neutralize it by getting out and ramping up the tempo to superhuman levels. The Pirates can play fast as well, but St. John's has the athletic advantage.
- They get easy points. This covers transition buckets as well as the free throw line. Seton Hall can't give St. John's, one of the more offensively challenged teams in the Big East, free points.
Follow the jump for more analysis in our Q&A with our St. John's counterparts, Rumble in the Garden!
South Orange Juice: How has it been for the fans going from a veteran team last year to one of the youngest teams in the nation this year? Where has the youth shown up the most, either on the stat sheet or on the court?
Rumble in the Garden: It's been a jarring change for the St. John's fanbase, who expected a continuation of success. Some people assumed that a highly-ranked recruiting class meant immediate wins. That kind of plug-and-play team only happens with elite recruits, and sometimes not even then, depending on the returning veterans. And this St. John's team is bereft of veteran experience. Before he left the squad, Malik Stith was the team's vet. He couldn't really lead with his on-court activity, because he wasn't a huge impact player. He couldn't take the hard shots, inspire the team with a scrappy play, or pace the squad with bursts of scoring. And the youth had to take those hard shots, solve pressing defenses, try to stem the tide of demoralizing scoring runs.
The youth shows in the team's overall skill. They play hard, generally, but are still finding out what works and what doesn't work on the court. On offense and defense, players are still installing the skill packages they'll display next year and beyond. A lot will improve.
SOJ: The recruiting class Steve Lavin signed was ranked in the top 5 in the nation, and there was a boatload of excitement in Queens. Now, they're down to just 6 players. What happened? Was it a snowball effect of sorts?
RitG: The banner recruiting class yielded 6 top-100 players. But to infuse so much talent into a roster at once, Steve Lavin had to go after players with some risk factor. The team lost three players at first to academics, lost Nurideen Lindsey in the middle because he clashed with Dunlap and disagreed about his role on the team, got Amir Garrett back after a semester, and the team's veteran Stith left a week ago. A number of reasons surround Malik Stith's departure, from the personal to playing time.
Even at full strength, the Johnnies were a small roster, thin inside, and young; this kind of year wasn't out of the realm of possibility (at full strength, I had them pegged for 15-15 overall). A few people fault Lavin for bringing in players who couldn't pass NCAA muster, but this is part of the process of changing the athletic culture of the program. It's kind of like throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks, really.
Even if all the players landed on campus, some parts of this year are predictable: high-usage freshman scorers often have holes in their game and in their consistency. Not every freshman was going to be able to be a crisp scoring machine - especially those lauded more for their athleticism than their skill. Defense with young, still-physically-developing freshmen is a work in progress.
SOJ: Talk about the electric duo of D'Angelo Harrison and Moe Harkless. Both have scored a ton of points this season, and Harkless had one of the best games by a freshman at Cameron Indoor in recent history.
RiTG: Harkless and Harrison are part of a bright future for St. John's. Both were known as scorers on the high school level, but they have developed nicely for the Red Storm. But Moe Harkless has taken his mix of athleticism and potential to a pretty high level. He is learning how to create his shots when the offense has no flow, has been thrust into a position where he needs to play hard, and he's flourished. He's not perfect; his three-point shooting needs a little correction and his game needs more tweaks and strength. But he's a real player, a great get for the class, a surprising athlete at his size.
D`Angelo Harrison started off well for the Red Storm and has really exploded in the last month. He struggles to hit shots inside the arc (and with shot selection), partly because he's the team's best creator of shot attempts. When he's not on the floor, the options are... less palatable. He can get on hot streaks, especially from outside the arc, and draws a lot of defensive attention.
SOJ: Is there a short-term fix to this depth problem? St. John's does have Jamal Branch transferring in next season, but no one else is currently signed. What can you see the coaching staff trying to do to fill out the roster?
RitG: The short-term fix is the long-term fix - recruit more players. Steve Lavin has been away from the on-court coaching duties but has been traversing the country in search of talent. He's looking at a Junior College shooter (Brandon Parga) and a JuCo forward (Orlando Sanchez), at some forwards in the northeast (Jakarr Sampson, Chris Obekpa), at some talented wing/ forwards out west (Winston Shepard), and possibly some guards (Darrick Wood is a possibility, and Felix Balomou, who may have to reclassify).
Having two recruits decommit during the season is certainly a blow to the program, and it's not clear which players are coming on to add depth and size.
SOJ: Steve Lavin has been absent from the bench for most of this season. Mike Dunlap has done an adequate job in his place, but is not having Lavin on the bench akin to, say, UConn not having Jim Calhoun on the bench?
RitG: In a sense yes and in a sense no. I don't know that the season would be much different with Lavin - he's not worth 20 points in a blowout. This year is much more about teaching and skill development; Mike Dunlap can do that as well as any coach in the country, and would have a lot of interaction with the players as is. If Lavin was in the fold, perhaps Nurideen Lindsey would still be on campus; but he likely would have bristled when Lavin told him to pass the ball and be less selfish/ reckless, as well.
(As for the Calhoun comparison, I don't know that Jim could have done much better than Blaney has; he might be worth a win. But the U Conn problems were there before Calhoun had to take his leaves of absence - a lack of leadership, cohesion, and talented players who need a talented lead guard to guide them.)