When: Saturday, Feb. 25
Where: Madison Square Garden — New York, New York
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -7.5, over/under 152.5 — Odds presented by DraftKings
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 80, St. John’s 71 — 79 percent win probability
UConn should have easily dispatched a middling St. John’s team when Mike Anderson and the Red Storm visited Hartford in January, but the Huskies put forth arguably their worst performance of the season and paid the consequences. St. John’s put up 47 points in the second half to win by 11 after ripping off a 14-2 run in crunch time.
Despite a career day from Jordan Hawkins (31 points), the rest of UConn’s lineup was flat and let St. John’s dictate a chaotic tempo. The Red Storm, the second most up-tempo team in the country, sped the game up for 77 total possessions — the second-most in a game for the Huskies all season.
UConn had lost three of four prior to that matchup with the Red Storm, then lost a nail-biter to Seton Hall on the road after, but out of the Huskies’ seven losses, the St. John’s loss is by far the worst. It’s UConn’s only Quad 3 or lower loss and the only real ding on a very solid resume that has them on pace for 4-seed or better, depending on how the rest of the season shakes out.
This time around, the Huskies look much more like the team that started the year 14-0 than the one that stumbled through January, heading to Madison Square Garden as winners of five of their last six and crushing two top-25 teams (Marquette and Providence) by more than 15 points each.
Sportsbooks like DraftKings still see UConn as a title threat, with +2000 odds to win it all and +450 odds to make the Final Four in Houston — both odds within the 10 best of all teams. A rematch with St. John’s at MSG means more than revenge this time around — it’s a crucial game for UConn to avoid a season sweep at the hands of a mediocre team and maintain good spirits into the postseason.
When UConn Has the Ball
Hawkins was the only Husky that showed up the last time UConn and St. John’s played, single-handedly keeping the Huskies in the game. His career-high 31-point performance seems to have sparked a new level for the Maryland native.
Since the last St. John’s game, Hawkins has scored 20 or more points in six of his last nine and has also demonstrated an ability to get to the basket. While the 3-point shot hasn’t been falling as much as usual for Hawkins — he’s 3-20 in his last two games from deep — he’s taken advantage of quick perimeter closeouts from defenders to blow by them and finish in the lane, especially with his left hand.
Big men Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan will have their hands full offensively going against center Joel Soriano, who has quietly vaulted himself into the discussion with the likes of Sanogo, Jack Nunge, and Ryan Kalkbrenner of the best big men in the Big East, if not the country. Soriano is an absolute menace on the boards and an adept shot blocker, ranking eighth in the Big East in block percentage.
Last time, St. John’s completely set the pace, forcing the Huskies to run a little more than they’d prefer, and used strong perimeter defense from Posh Alexander and Andre Curbelo to force 21 UConn turnovers. While UConn isn’t a bad transition team, slowing the game down a bit and giving Sanogo and Hawkins more time to operate greatly benefits the Huskies. It also opens up more opportunities for Alex Karaban, who has evolved into an excellent spot shooter, hitting 50 percent from three in his last five games.
When St. John’s Has the Ball
St. John’s is not dependent on 3-pointers, with threes making up just 22 percent of its scoring this year, one of the lowest totals in Division I. Given how the team shoots from deep (32.2 percent), it’s probably for the best.
Despite these struggles from the perimeter, UConn still closed out hard on St. John’s players around the arc and got beat multiple times off the dribble as a result. With a team that shoots this poorly, the Huskies can afford to pack it in a little bit and dare the Red Storm to try and win a shootout.
Soriano dominated last time out against UConn, scoring 19 points and adding 13 rebounds, including four on the offensive end. He’s the Big East’s top offensive rebounder per KenPom, and it will be up to the entire Huskies frontcourt to limit his second chances as much as possible.
Curbelo and Rafael Pinzon joined Soriano as three of the six St. John’s players in double figures in the win over UConn, but both have missed time since then. Curbelo was ruled out by Anderson as a coach’s decision for three games in February and just returned in the Red Storm’s 79-70 win over Georgetown, scoring 11 points. Pinzon, who burned the Huskies repeatedly with a solid midrange game, has been suspended for the last two games and it is unclear when he will return.
With Curbelo likely back and Alexander alongside him, the duo forms a chaotic but effective backcourt that looks to do most of its damage in transition. Neither player is much of a shooting threat — Alexander in particular is 16.3 percent from three this year — but they do a good job getting into the lane to dump off to Soriano or find open shooters.