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St. Johns vs. Northwestern basketball preview

They play here. We don't.
They play here. We don't.

So we got the Johnnies rather than Davidson, which bodes well for NU's RPI, even if Davidson is probably going to do well in their conference while St. John's sputters in the much harder Big East.

I was going to stick around and scout the second game at the Garden last night. I hung around for about ten minutes before everybody got bored, and we bid our one Davidson fan friend adieu and went someplace more interesting, which was anywhere. Last night's game between Davidson and St. John's was murderously bad: the score got to 59-57 with five minutes left... and stayed there until there were 17 seconds left, when St. John's shot some free throws. That's no field goals in the game's last five minutes, no points, no nothing. Guess they were saving it up for tonight.

I'll preview the Red Storm after the jump.

Are they good?: St. John's is the best team to appear on NU's out-of-conference schedule this season. That is to say, they're pretty mediocre. St. John's is 6-3 with the highlight of their season being a tournament win in the Great Alaska Shootout, featuring a drubbing of Drake and a victory over an average Arizona State team, but, they have no real signature wins thus far. And in terms of signature losses, a season-opener to a very good St. Mary's team is alright, but in their last three games, they lost two straight to St. Bonaventure's and Fordham, two middling mid-major squads from the NYC metro area. Not awe-inspiring stuff. Steve Lavin new he would have some struggles in his first year taking over for the much maligned Norm Roberts at a St. John's program that has been struggling for a long time to reignite themselves as prominent. It looked like he'd dodged some bullets with a 5-1 start, but it looks like his team might be reverting to mean quickly and painfully.

Scouting report: From about ten minutes of watching basketball and kenpom: The Johnnies, like Northwestern, try to beat you by forcing you to turn the ball over with weird defenses you haven't seen before. They like to press, and they like to press hard. And they like to press in lots of different ways: in very little time watching, I've seen the Johnnies play a 1-3-1 3-quarter court press, a full court man press, full court 1-2-2 press, and 3-quarter 2-2-1 press. What that means is that a typical press break won't always work against them because they run so many different types of pressure on you. It's effective, as the Johnnies force turnovers on 25.8 percent of possessions, 17th in the nation (while only turning it over 15.5 percent of the time, fifth in the nation.) They have a very good team athletically - lots of big, quick guys - so that sort of very aggressive defense plays into their hands. However, getting back and getting set in the halfcourt seems to be a problem, and St. John's allows a ridiculous 39 percent shooting from downtown. Also, their highly athletic squad aren't great at shooting themselves, scoring only 30.7 percent of the time from downtown. They have a very eery kenpom, in that every category that they are good at or bad at on offense, they are also good at or bad at that same category on defense. It highlights their athleticism and interior scoring ability, but lack of ability to control the perimeter on either side of the ball. They're not afraid to go small - they played a five-guard lineup for much of their win and Arizona State when they realized they needed all the speed they could get to force turnovers.

Who they got?: After graduating Anthony Mason, Jr. last year, one of my all-time favorite players, because, you know, he's the son of Anthony Mason, the Johnnies turn to three main senior scorers: Dwight Hardy, a juco senior guard, who, despite shooting 24 percent from three, averages 14.6 - noteworthy that his two best scoring games of the season were 24 and 30 point performances that required 18 field goal attempts that saw St. John's lose to St. Bonaventure's and Fordham. Justin Brownlee, a 6-foot-7 forward who brought home the MVP of the Alaska shootout and another juco transfer, has basically doubled his role this year, and is now a dominant inside presence. And D.J. Kennedy led the team in scoring last year and has seen his role lessen slightly this year, but is still averaging 12.1 points and leading the team in rebounds with 6 per game.

Us and them: I have no idea if these two schools have ever played. Step your game up, people that are supposed to provide me with this information!

Difference between the amount of times they have made the NCAA tournament and the amount of times NU has made the tournament: 27! St. John's is bonafide in terms of history. Most of the Red Storm's success came when they were the Redmen under Lou Carnesecca, who in his 20+ years at the helm - which saw him get a court named after him - including a 1985 Final Four run with Mark Jackson running the point. However, the team hasn't gone to the tourney since 2002, signaling the sad demise of New York City basketball. I'd argue a lot of that failure is due to the decision to change the name - which was originally not intended to be about Native Americans, they were just guys wearing red - to the Red Storm.

So is this a home game?: Depends who you ask. According to Kenpom, it is, since Madison Square Garden is an occasional home site for St. John's, and, according to common sense, it is, since you can buy tickets through St. Johns' website. According to the NCAA, it's a neutral site game, because it's part of a neutral site tournament. According to me, it's a home game, but it should be noted that St. Johns' NYC cred has fallen off. They don't have the power to sell out MSG, or even come close - hell, they barely have the power to sell out Carnesecca Court out in Jamaica, where they play most of their home games. Last night, the stadium - which is decked out for a neutral site game - was at best a third full, and a lot of the supporters weren't St. John's fans. Maybe tonight it will be different, being the championship, but, St. John's isn't the city powerhouse it once was. I remember back in the 90's, when it seemed like the city truly cared about Big East basketball. Once a year, all these big teams - UConn, with Ray Allen, Providence, with God Shammgod, Georgetown, with AI, Syracuse, with whoever Syracuse felt like having, would come to the Garden, and St. John's would hold their own. Now, the Big East is this gigantic multinational corporation that has teams like DePaul, Marquette, Louisville, South Florida and TCU in it. It doesn't feel the same. It doesn't feel like the gritty Northeast conference I used to pay attention to when I was a kid. It seems like a hodgepodge, and the fact that New York City will never care about its conference tournament in the way it once did hurts St. John's. And their non-NYC centric roster shows it. (Although they do start a guy from Queens and a guy from the Bronx.) That said, St. John's will have a home court advantage - they'll have their band and two sets of cheerleaders and a decent smattering of fans - but nothing overwhelming.

Good names?: The winner is clearly Dele Coker, the pride of Lagos, Nigeria - second Lagos reference in two days, people - but props to Paris Horne as well. I am mainly impressed with Dele because I thought Dele was a name that Bison Dele made up for himself when he decided to change his name from Brian Williams to Bison Dele to honor his Native American roots - good for Dele Coker for proving its a real name, also, for coking so much.

Anything to look for? I've said it several times on the young season: NU's offense against a full-court press scares me. Legitimately. It seems to involve John Shurna running to the corner and standing there, which is exactly what a press break should not entail, because the corner is the most dangerous place on the court to be. It sucks that NU has to face a team with a complicated pressing system on one day's practice time, because Bill Carmody probably needs more than that to install a press break. Because he hasn't done it yet. However, once NU gets the ball across half-court, they should be golden: they will light this team up from downtown. But I'll say right now that their ability to get the ball past the time line will decide the game: NU is notably prone to being crippled by full-court pressure - you know, small point guard, horribly indecisive center, and no real plan of attack leads to lots of bad, ugly turnovers. On defense, the 1-3-1 might not work as desired, because St. John's is very good about turning the ball over. However, if they do run it, it will force St. John's to shoot, which is something they're not particularly comfortable with. I'd rather NU run the 1-3-1 than see them try to match up in a man against better athletes, which could lead to Luka Mirkovic getting murdered on the low post. If Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb can stretch the press and get open across halfcourt, NU won't struggle.

Should NU win?: It will be Northwestern's toughest task yet: a not-horrible opponent (although one on a severe downslide) on the road on one day's rest against a system they have never faced. But Northwestern is once again the better team. I think NU squeaks out a close one against St. John's.