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Previewing St. John's: Seton Hall aims to stop three-game series skid

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Seton Hall kicks off their Big East schedule by hosting St. John's on New Year's Eve. Preview, scouting report, series history, three things to watch, and more.

Steve Lavin has his team firing on all cylinders.
Steve Lavin has his team firing on all cylinders.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The last time St. John's and Seton Hall were ranked when they played each other: February 17th, 1993, a 95-85 win for the Pirates.

That won't be the case on Wednesday, only the Johnnies are ranked at No. 15, but the two schools are a combined 21-3 after non-conference play, perhaps a sign of a local college hoops revival. St. John's 11-1 start is their best since 1985-86 and a No. 15 ranking is tied for their highest spot in the AP poll since finishing the 1999-00 season at No. 9. Seton Hall will look to break a streak of three straight wins for the Red Storm which came by a collective six points including two one-point games a season ago.

Once a team that struggled in back-to-back games against Division II Franklin Pierce and LIU-Brooklyn, the Johnnies have rattled off seven straight wins since falling to Gonzaga 73-66 at MSG in the NIT Preseason Tip-Off just over a month ago. Steve Lavin has challenged his team against solid opposition like Saint Mary's and Long Beach State after winning on the road at Syracuse at the beginning of the month to spark their current run.

Defense has been a constant throughout the seven-game stretch. The Johnnies have allowed an average of 53 ppg and have held opponents to 57 or less points during the span, which doesn't differ too much from the rest of their games. In 11 wins this season, only Division II Franklin Pierce has scored north of 61 points on St. John's.

Seton Hall will be playing shorthanded when Isaiah Whitehead sits out his second game due to a stress fracture in his right foot, which takes away from some of the match up's allure. Whitehead committed to Seton Hall directly over St. John's last fall and hails from Brooklyn, though I'm sure Desi Rodriguez (Bronx) and Khadeen Carrington (Brooklyn) will have chips on their shoulder on Wednesday.

Scouting St. John's:

As alluded to, the Red Storm's defense is one of their major strong points so far this season. Ranked fourth nationally in defensive efficiency and top-35 in six other major defensive categories, a short rotation from Steve Lavin has not limited his team's ability to protect the rim.

With and without one of the nation's best shot blockers in Chris Obekpa (7.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 3.7 bpg) in the game, St. John's showed an incredibly active 1-3-1 zone look that absolutely smothered Tulane yesterday. Lavin extends his zone beyond the arc and slots in Obekpa, Christian Jones, or Joey De La Rosa on the low block similar to what we saw from Illinois State at the Paradise Jam. The Red Storm switched between man and zone, but stuck with the zone when Obekpa found himself in early foul trouble. Like Kevin Willard does often, expect a variation of defensive looks from St. John's on Wednesday.

While Obekpa mans the paint, St. John's has mostly ran out what can be called a four-guard lineup for most of the season. Jamal Branch (4.8 ppg, 2.8 apg, 2.7 rpg), D`Angelo Harrison (18.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg), and Phil Greene IV (11.5 ppg) man a conventional backcourt while 6-foot-6 do-everything Sir`Dominic Pointer plays as an undersized 'four'. Not to be forgotten, sophomore point guard Rysheed Jordan (14.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.1 apg) plays starters minutes, but hasn't seen the starting lineup since Gonzaga with Lavin favoring senior Jamal Branch early in games.

The guard-heavy look has excelled when everyone shares the ball, something that was on display in the first half against Tulane yesterday. Extra passes and crisp ball movement is a key for St. John's, and something they will continue to work on (244th in A/FGM ratio) heading into Big East play.

Steve Lavin's rotation effectively goes six-deep, four of which are seniors, unless Obekpa is in foul trouble, which explains St. John's using the 334th-most bench minutes in the country. Like other teams from Queens in recent years, the Johnnies don't rely on the three ball with just 21.5-percent (311th) of their points coming from beyond the arc. While their athleticism really shines in transition, St. John's plays at a middle of the pack tempo (133rd).

Last 10 games (SHU 5-5; 26-33 all-time):

Feb. 13, 2014, St. John's 68, SETON HALL 67, Newark, N.J.
Jan. 23, 2014, St. John's 77, SETON HALL 76, Queens, N.Y.
Jan. 27, 2013, St. John's 71, SETON HALL 67, New York, N.Y.
Feb. 14, 2012, SETON HALL 94, St. John's 64, Newark, N.J.
March 3, 2011, SETON HALL 84, St. John's 70, Newark, N.J.
Feb. 17, 2010, SETON HALL 59, St. John's 50, Queens, N.Y.

Feb. 22, 2009, St. John's 70, SETON HALL 65, Queens, N.Y.
Feb. 5, 2009, SETON HALL 91, St. John's 81, Newark, N.J.
March 1, 2008, St. John's 65, SETON HALL 62, Queens, N.Y.
Jan. 11, 2007, SETON HALL 79, St. John's 63, East Rutherford, N.J.

Three things to watch for:

Angel Delgado v. Chris Obekpa - With junior college post forward Keith Thomas ineligible, Obekpa is St. John's anchor in the paint. He loves to block shots (I'd like to know his per game goaltending average too) and although he has an uncanny ability to protect the rim, it also makes Obekpa foul prone. In two games against Seton Hall last season, he scored 12 points, had nine rebounds and just one block (although he blocked Brandon Mobley's late inbound pass at the end of the second game), while fouling out of the first game. It'll be a really tough ask of Delgado, particularly offensively, but perhaps Kevin Willard knows something about shutting down Obekpa that we don't.

Seton Hall's half court offense. St. John's will look to set the tone early, something which can be affected by the hosts on the offensive end. I think the Johnnies have the edge in transition, especially with Whitehead out injured, so pushing the tempo may not be the wisest of moves from Seton Hall early on. With Obekpa on Delgado and the smaller Sir`Dominic Pointer covering Brandon Mobley out to the perimeter, offensive production will need to come from another outlet. Perhaps Brooklyn-native Khadeen Carrington will build on his 12-point performance against Maine on Saturday. Carrington is averaging 9.2 ppg over his last four games.

Sterling Gibbs to step up. In my book, Sterling is 1-for-3 in big games this season. He single-handedly beat Illinois State with his 40 points in the Virgin Islands, but didn't perform in Wichita until the game was already decided and scored just three points (1-11 fg) at Georgia. He took the reins and produced when Whitehead momentarily went down injured against Wichita State, will he do the same against St. John's? Seton Hall will need leadership from him.

KenPom says: No. 39 Seton Hall 64, No. 18 St. John's 63 (53%)

Projected St. John's starters:

G - Jamal Branch

G - Phil Greene IV

G - D`Angelo Harrison

G/F - Sir`Dominic Pointer

C - Chris Obekpa

Time: Noon, New Year's Eve

TV: FOX Sports 1

Radio: 970 AM

Opening line: TBD