On with the show: a UConn-St. John's preview

Very brief intro here, because I get my say on the state of the Huskies in the aptly-titled "State of the Huskies" section below the jump. The big news, of course, is Jim Calhoun, and you can check out any of our previous updates on the subject. Let's turn our attention to St. John's.

Join us for TheOpenThread around 6:45. I personally won't be there, but Porter and Justin should be along at some point during the evening. I expect to see 150 comments of people freaking out (if UConn lose) or 60 sarcastic "FINAL FOUR!" comments (if UConn wins). Do me proud, folks.

The game: NR/NR St. John's (12-5, 2-3 Big East; t-9th) at RV/No. 23 UConn

The place: The Morgue, Hartford

The time: 7 p.m.

The media: MyTV9, SNY (TV); WTIC 1080-AM, WHUS 91.7 FM (radio)

The Vegas favorite: UConn, by 9

Series history: St. John's leads, 32-26

UConn has won the last eight, with the Johnnies' last victory coming in February 2002, in a thrilling overtime game at MSG that plays on ESPN Classic once in a while. The Red Storm, of course, will forever be a part of UConn basketball lore, since UConn opened Gampel Pavilion on Jan. 27, 1990, with a 72-58 win over St. John's.

Last meeting: UConn 67, St. John's 55 (Jan. 15, 2009 at Madison Square Garden)

Kemba Walker teased the hell out of all of us in his hometown, scoring 21 points on 12 FG attempts, dishing out four assists and grabbing five rebounds in 31 minutes. It'd be nice to see that again in every game for the rest of the forever.

State of the Huskies: As you may have guessed by the somewhat manic postgame reactions recently, things haven't been going very well in UConn country. UConn has lost three straight games for the first time since the postseason-less season of 2006-07. (Sidenote: UConn was 12-3 against a cupcake schedule entering the St. John's game that season; after beating the Johnnies 68-59, the Huskies finished 4-11. No real point here, except to say: if UConn goes to overtime with Rutgers, as it did that season, then start making your plans to be in attendance for the CBI first round game.)

Earlier this week, I was planning a post on how things might not be as bad as they seem. The shorter version:

UConn has been within one possession in the final minutes five of its six losses against the toughest schedule in America. Yeah, the important things are wins and losses, but given a lucky bounce here and there, UConn could theoretically be 16-1. As a fan, when our teams are doing poorly, we tend to turn that into a value judgment (THEY HAVE NO HEART!). I'm certainly guilty of that at times.

But if John Cahill doesn't call a nonsense foul with 0.2 left against Cincinnati, if Kemba Walker knocks down an open 3 against Georgetown, if Calhoun switched on a screen set for John Wall in the final minute, if Michigan shot the 29% from 3-point land that the usually did, if SOMEONE COULD MAKE A FREAKIN' FREE THROW...

If any of those had happened, we're sitting here saying, 'Yeah, this year is going about as well as I planned. Some tough losses, but we can play with anyone and we've even got a big win!/we avoided a horrible loss!'

Is that not still true despite the fact that every thing has gone wrong and UConn's suffered some tight, frustrating losses?

Now before you accuse me of being a sunny optimist who loves puppies and sunshine, let me backtrack a little. UConn's bad luck isn't really 'random'. There are factors we can point to, such as 1) UConn's offense being a turnover machine over the first 38 minutes (and that doesn't magically solve itself in crunch time); 2) with no 3-point shooter to speak of, it's tough to come back when you find yourself behind in the final minute; 3) there's no go-to scorer, no A.J. Price in whom we have confidence to take the last shot. But it's not like there's that great a gap between 11-6 and 14-3 for this team. It just looks that way, because UConn has no NCAA Tournament resume to speak of and that freaks people like me out.

Of course, since I planned to write that post, Jim Calhoun has taken a leave of absence, and everything appears to have fallen apart.

It'll be up to George Blaney to lead the team through the next 10 or so (hopefully not more) days, when the schedule kinda-sorta eases up a bit (Texas aside). In Blane Dog We Trust.

Things can get a lot worse this season, I am ever so confident and sure of that fact. But as the 2007-08 team learned, maybe you just need a little adversity to get that ol' winning ball rolling.

We're at a crossroads, people.

 

So, tell me a little bit about the Red Storm: Before you read my amateur musings, head on over to the St. John's experts over at Johnny Jungle. Their extremely solid game preview (says Porter: "except for the batshit crazy notion that Ater Majok can play") is right here.

St. John's best wins this year include an away win at Temple (Nov. 28) and a home win against Cincinnati (last week), although the Red Storm have also lost to Providence. SJU's other four losses are to Duke, Georgetown, Louisville and near-Kansas-killer Cornell.

One of the more amazing things about this St. John's team is that everyone listed on the Red Storm's KenPom page is a junior or younger. The only senior of note is redshirt senior Anthony Mason, Jr., who just recently returned to the Red Storm's lineup after missing the first half of the season with a hamstring injury.

Mason scored eight points (on three FGAs!) and grabbed 10 rebounds and will appear to be a complimentary player until he's back at 100% and game speed.

The Pomeroy scouting report reveals a few interesting tidbits - namely, that St. John's plays one of the slower tempos in the country (225th, a full three possessions per game fewer than UConn), and only three regular contributors have an offensive rating above the average of 100.

The best of them is Red Storm leading scorer D.J. Kennedy (15.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg), who is making 56% of his 2-pointers and 36% of his 3-pointers. He's a 6-6 swingman, so expect Stanley Robinson to defend him most of the time.

St. John's is not a 3-point shooting team (209th in the country in attempts as a percentage of total FGA), and when they do shoot, they only make about 33%, although Dwight Hardy (over 40%; he's the only other St. John's player in double figures scoring, and he comes off the bench) and Paris Horne (38%) appear capable of making a few.

UConn's 2-point defense remains one of the absolute best in the country, so if St. John's isn't consciously looking to get tons of 3-point shots, I like UConn's chances. On the whole, Pomeroy likes UConn's offense slightly better than St. John's, although the difference isn't that great (74th vs. 136th in the country).

The Johnnies are another fairly small team, with almost everybody at 6-8 or shorter. Dele Coker, a 6-10 center, got the start in SJU's win over DePaul last weekend. He averages 2.3 ppg and 2.3 rpg and is the only Red Storm player who can match height with Majok/Okwandu/Edwards.

UConn theoretically should be able to outrebound St. John's, but then rebounding hasn't been UConn's strong suit this year. Maybe Alex Oriakhi will grow a third arm.

Check out the game notes: UConn's are here, while St. John's are here.

Media matters: Without Their Coach, Huskies Try To Move On Tonight (Courant.com) - Courant's game preview features the big story of the day

Kemba and Blane Dog talk offense (Courant.com) - Coach Blaney proves that he's an offensive genius, because he wants to get guys open tonight. What a concept.

How Much Stress Can Calhoun Take? (Courant.com) - Jeff Jacobs says that this bout with stress should have Calhoun thinking of an exit strategy.

UConn looking to break 3-game losing streak vs. St. John's (Journal-Inquirer)

The preview, in 100ish words: Of course we're all sad that Coach Cal will be missing this and any future games. The man is UConn basketball. But it's not out of the realm of possibility that having UConn's young players take a break from being scared to death of Jim Calhoun could be a temporary positive. This is as close as it gets to a January must-win for UConn. A loss here would basically send the season into a tailspin, with six highly-ranked opponents still left to play (Texas, Villanova, Syracuse, West Virginia, Louisville, Marquette). But more than the win, I'd like to see some - any - signs of life. All turnarounds have to start somewhere...right?

The prediction:

UConn 64, St. John's 54

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