Since St. John's and Northwestern both won last night the Wildcats get another game against a major conference opponent in the final of the MSG Holiday Festival. This one happens to be on the other guy's home court and it's going to be as close to a "marquee" non-conference win as Northwestern can muster. Thus I brought in Pico Dulce of The East Coast Bias to tell us a little something about the Red Storm. Please note that these questions were answered prior to last night's game.
Q&A with East Coast Bias about St. John's
CCB: What happened in the losses to Fordham and St. Bonaventure? Was it just a case of effort, or have teams found a crack in Steve Lavin's system already?
ECB: The losses to Fordham and Bonaventure were surprising... but all year, the Red Storm have had some trouble locating three-point shooters in the press. And in the halfcourt, the rotations have left outside shooters open. In the Drake game, the Johnnies held the Bulldogs to 21.7% shooting from beyond the arc. But in the other games, the Storm haven't held a team below 36% from the perimeter, and that's been a huge factor in teams coming back on the Storm.
CCB: Speaking of Lavin, he inherited a veteran team that was good at defense and bad at offense, this season that has flipped around. Since the personnel is pretty similar, what's the difference been?
ECB: The difference for the Red Storm has been an entirely different use of the same personnel. Last year, Dwight Hardy played 48% of the minutes; this year, he's logging under 78% of the minutes. Last year Justin Brownlee played 44% of minutes. This season he's the team's main post threat, playing under 60% of minutes. Malik Stith has seen his playing time double. They take the minutes from departed Anthony Mason Jr. and Omari Lawrence, and from former starter Sean Evans (now firmly planted on the bench). Brownlee and Hardy were better offensive players than the players in front of them in the rotation. The former staff didn't see their fit with the defensive scheme.
The style of play is different as well - St. John's is looking more to attack on offense. On defense, the scheme is to press and then fall back into zone. They look to force turnovers and generate offense instead of playing to slow the game down and stifle scoring in the halfcourt with man defense.
The team looks more comfortable scoring, and is less dependent on raw athleticism and offensive rebounding than they were last year. We'll see how good the offense really is during the Big East season; last year's St. John's team looked competent (and with wins against St. Bonaventure and Fordham) as well at this point of the year. Then Cornell had their way with them, and the season's positive start faded into memory.
CCB: Turnovers sort of drive the Red Storm's defense. Since Northwestern is one of the better ball-handling teams in the country, much like St. John's, is Lavin's team going to be able to find another way to stop the Wildcats' offense?
ECB: Probably not.
I do think they can defend better than they have so far this season; and even if not, the Red Storm have had some effective scoring games. They may not have to find a way to stop the Wildcats offense, just slow them down enough to pull off the win.
CCB: Justin Brownlee seems to be having a heck of a season when he's not in foul trouble, can you tell us a little bit more about his game?
ECB: Justin Brownlee is a versatile inside-outside forward. He's undersized down low, but has hops and some skill around the basket. He's functioning better as part of the offense this year, taking shots in rhythm instead of jacking them up with half a minute left on the shot clock. He's provided the post presence - or at least the post skill - that the Johnnies lacked at times last year. His rebounding hasn't been great, which has been the only flaw in his game so far.
CCB: Where were your expectations before the season for this team? Where are they now and how much will the result of this game impact your feelings?
ECB: I thought the team would have been 7-1 at this point... and better on defense. At least closer to where they were last year. I strongly believe that the team we see right now won't be the same team that finishes the year. The staff is obviously trying to impose a different style of defense on a Red Storm team that payed almost exclusively man-to-man, and that transition may be a factor.
A big thanks to Pico for answering these questions. Here's the link to my answers about Northwestern. Remember, I'll be live-blogging the game tonight at 9:30 p.m. ET / 8:30 p.m. CT.