Four days ago, UConn went into the New York metropolitan area and somehow escaped with a victory despite trailing by 14 points against a sub-.500 Seton Hall team. Tonight, the Huskies return to the area, this time stopping at the World's Most Famous Arena to take on the St. John's Jekyllhydes (7 p.m., ESPN).
Steve Lavin's crew is 13-9 overall, 5-5 in the Big East, but that record has come against the nation's toughest schedule. Among the scalps St. John's has taken this year: Duke, Georgetown (both at MSG) and West Virginia. The Red Storm are very much on the bubble, and you know they'd love a resume-bolstering win over a team like UConn.
In advance of tonight's 7 p.m. tip (game's on ESPN), we were enlisted by the Red Storm's SBNation representative, Pico Dulce of Rumble In the Garden to answer a few questions on tonight's game. My answers to his questions are here.
Pico's answers to my questions begin below and continue below the jump. Read on to prepare for tonight's coming storm (DID SOMEBODY SAY STORM?):
1. My biggest worry coming into this game is that St. John's seems like a completely different team playing at Madison Square Garden. At MSG, they can beat Duke or Georgetown; away from MSG, they're liable to struggle or lose against UCLA or Fordham. Is that perception accurate, and if so, why?
Part of the issue is that the Red Storm, for some strange reason, seems to really get up for the Garden games. This year, the crowds have been solid, vocal, and it feels like Big Time basketball in the Garden. At Carnesecca, maybe the team has gotten used to coasting against the opponents who come to Queens? It's disturbing, and it hurts to watch.
The road games, well, they are road games. UCLA is a tough defensive opponent - Ben Howland still knows what he's doing, and has 4 McDonald's All-Americans on the roster (or is it 3?). Games like Fordham - or the way the team played against Notre Dame on the road - are inexplicable. It's like they lose their composure.
I wish I had a good quantifiable answer, but I have no clue.
2. It seems like St. John's has had the same starting five for about 3 1/2 years...has anyone's play surprised you, or is this basically the team you expected to show up in the preseason?
In preseason, I didn't quite know what to expect. But I figured the coaches would note that there are 2 players who could score - Justin Brownlee and Dwight Hardy
- and actually deploy them, defensive slights to both be damned. That happened. I didn't expect the team to become much better at shooting, they didn't. I expected okay defense - it's where I expected, though the methods are different (allowing corner jump shots and forcing turnovers instead of defending the post).
For me, any surprises have been negative. I expected a little more out of the team. Or really, I expected more out of D.J. Kennedy and maybe a little more out of Malik Boothe
, who could get a little more time on the floor as a heady floor leader. Kennedy, though, is using far fewer possessions than he has the past 2 years; he's regressed into a more efficient form of the player he was freshman year - he rebounds, gets some steals, but is a role player instead of "Big Play", the guy who uses his wiles to get the Red Storm points in the dry spells.
Maybe they're better that way? The turnovers are down. And they get the ball to the post players. But overall, the changes on offense haven't been that striking.
3. St. John's is 25th in the Pomeroy rankings for forcing turnovers, and their full-court press defense can really cause a lot of trouble (as anyone who saw the Duke or UCLA games can attest). Do you think this will be a key in Thursday's game, and do you expect the Red Storm to have that kind of success forcing TOs against UConn's backcourt?
I think Kemba and Shabazz are impressive ballhandlers. Kemba seems to have lost some of the bad dribble ideas he's had in the past. If St. John's can make him give up the ball and have guys like Shabazz! and Lamb handle it? I like the Red Storm's chances to cause disruptions. I don't know that it will be a great turnover-fest, though; Connecticut has better ballhandlers than Duke and FAR better than UCLA (their guards aren't very good with the ball).
4. St. John's is in kind of a strange place, because this is really the transition between the Norm Roberts era and the Steve Lavin era. Tell me about the fresh start the Red Storm will have next season with a highly-touted recruiting class.
Next year is a fresh start. I am a risk-averse person, so to me, it's way too fresh. 10, possibly even 11 newcomers? It's a terrible flaw carried over from the old regime, and I always wonder if the AD could have said "Norm? Two more JUCOs on top of 7 seniors? No. Stop. Redshirt SOMEONE."
Without a strong hand to guide them - and even with one - that's not a recipe for immediate success. Pomeroy ranks St. John's as the 4th oldest team in the NCAAs, and next year will be where Memphis is at now - some good talent, but not one-and-done talent. It's going to be a longer year than people think. I just hope it's not an SEC West kind of year.
Growth is fun to watch, and there will be so much teaching going on. But as fresh starts go to more casual fans, people will start using phrases like "Same Old Storm", when in reality it's going to take the team a year to grow from a low pressure system into a real Storm.
5. What do you think St. John's needs to do the rest of the way to make the NCAA Tournament this year?
If you'd like to include a score prediction here, feel free.
Win games. I channeled my inner Norm Roberts for that one.
In seriousness - the Johnnies need to beat one of U Conn/ Pittsburgh at home. They need two of Marquette/ Cincinnati/ Seton Hall on the road. And then they need to take care of business against DePaul and South Florida. Obviously, beating Villanova would be a jump start as well. But my realistic path for the team would be W vs Cincy OR Marquette, W vs DePaul, South Florida, Seton Hall.
That gets the team to 9-9 in the Big East; they should take a BE Tournament game since they'll play the first day; and that should get them in the NCAAs as an 8, 9 or 10 seed.
5a. Have any score prediction for Thursday night?
I think the Walkin' Kembas take this one. 70-62. I'm often wrong, so take that with a grain of salt.
Thanks to Pico for answering my questions!