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Xavier v. St. John’s: preview, matchups, keys to the game

The road is never easy in the Big East, but St. John’s has been as accommodating a host as the league has to offer.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Xavier
“You guys... you know, do basketball stuff.”
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

If you could take one of the players from the original version of NBA Jam to coach your D1 basketball program, which would you choose? Dan Majerle and Danny Manning wouldn’t be bad choices, but they’ve already got teams. Heck, Scott Skiles has loads of experience, maybe give him a call and see what’s up.

St. John’s chose Chris Mullin. He’s 8-38 in Big East games as a head coach. That’s not all his fault - the cupboard he was left with was pretty bare - but he hasn’t been earning accolades with his tactical acumen in attempting to get the most out of the talent he has to deploy.

All that to say that things aren’t going super well for St. John’s right now. They’ve lost 10 straight games and star guard Shamorie Ponds and non-star big man Kassoum Yakwe are both battling injury problems. You wouldn’t fancy St. John’s for an at-large bid at this point, but you figure they’re eventually going to have to stop this slide and get one in the win column.

Maybe.

Team fingerprint

Things have really gone off the rails for St. John’s in conference play. Let’s start with the offense. They’re still playing quickly, which I guess is something; they’ve just lost all semblance of playing well.

They’re last in the league in 3P%, 8th in 2P%, and 7th in FT%. That doesn’t leave a lot of ways to score. Second chance points? Ninth in the league in OReb%. Just, like, tons of FTA? Tenth in the league in getting to the line. They don’t turn the ball over much, but if you’re the defense you know they’ll just chuck up a brick and then not board it if you let them be, why gamble for turnovers?

Their defense is first in the league in forcing tunovers and two-point percentage. Pretty good, right? They’re still 9th in the league in defensive efficiency because they completely concede the arc. Opponents are taking 44% of their shots from deep and making 45% of those attempts. They also foul like it’s their individual and collective job and don’t defend the glass at all. Not good.

Personnel

  • Bryan Trimble has played 355 minutes this year (16.9 per game) and turned the ball over twice. That TO rate of 4.1% is tops in the nation.
  • Shamorie Ponds is now shooting 19.8% behind the arc against division one opponents but has 29 more attempts than Marvin Clark, who is shooting 42.4%.
  • 52% of the time St. John’s gets a steal, they turn it into a two point jumper in transition. They are shooting barely over 30% on those attempts.

Starters

Starting matchups
Shamorie Ponds Point Guard Quentin Goodin
Sophomore Class Sophomore
6'1", 175 Measurements 6'4", 190
19.1/5.1/4.7 Game line 7.4/3/5.3
0.385/0.203/0.835 Shooting line 0.401/0.115/0.843
Ponds has become a negative contributor due to his horrendous shooting. His offensive efficiency is bang on average, but he takes 32% of his teams shots and uses the ball more than all but 38 other players in the country. He's three of his last 23 from the floor.
Justin Simon Shooting Guard J.P. Macura
Sophomore Class Senior
6'5", 215 Measurements 6'5", 203
11.6/7.4/4.9 Game line 13.4/4.2/3.3
0.473/0.429/0.654 Shooting line 0.476/0.382/0.838
Simon is a starter because he's a great defender. Not many guys have the skill set to be 25th in the nation in steal rate and also block 3% of opponent's shots. He's also the Red Storm's top defensive rebounder. Last time out against Xavier, he poured in 28.
Marvin Clark II Small Forward Trevon Bluiett
Junior Class Senior
6'7", 230 Measurements 6'6", 202
11.1/4/0.9 Game line 19.1/5.5/2.6
0.441/0.411/0.911 Shooting line 0.458/0.425/0.811
Were there a coach for St. John's rather than a legacy piece on the sideline, he might suggest feeding Clark the ball. Clark's efficiency is hampered by his mediocre 18.7% turnover rate, but he can shoot it.
Bashir Ahmed Power Forward Naji Marshall
Senior Class Freshperson
6'7", 210 Measurements 6'7", 218
11.5/4.5/0.8 Game line 7.5/3.3/1.4
0.396/0.359/0.584 Shooting line 0.559/0.364/0.686
Ahmed is decent three point shooter, but he shoots too many pull up jumpers and he's wretched at the line. He's excellent at taking care of the ball, though.
Tariq Owens Center Kerem Kanter
Junior Class Senior
6'11", 205 Measurements 6'10", 240
8.7/6.2/0.6 Game line 9.9/5.7/0.6
0.531/0.348/0.737 Shooting line 0.56/0.333/0.793
If you've taken a shot in New York this year, there's a good chance Owens at least got fingertips to it. He's a shot blocking machine who is serviceable inside and can occasionally knock down a three.

Reserves

St. John’s is not a deep team. Kassoum Yakwe didn’t play against Butler because of an ankle injury, and will be limited if he plays tonight. That leaves the Red Storm with seven scholarship players. The aformentioned Bryan Trimble is one of the two that doesn’t start. He’s a backup guard who is so elite at taking care of the ball that he is extremely reluctant to shoot it. Amar Alibegovic is a 6-9 big man who has developed exactly zero since arriving in New York. His offensive efficiency is 58.7 and he shoots 27.5% from the floor. That’s remarkably bad, even for a St John’s player.

Three questions

  • Where did that first game come from? St. John’s posted an offensive efficiency of 118.5 against Xavier in the game at Cintas that X narrowly won. Other than the 128.8 the Johnnies hung on KenPom #305 Sacred Heart, that was their best offensive performance of the year. Xavier isn’t a miserable defensive team, but St. John’s just went ham on the them. A couple of home rolls in that one and it could have gone the other way.
  • Why can’t St. John’s close? The Johnnies were within three in the final minute at Seton Hall, down two with the ball at Creighton in the final minute despite having gone 11 straight possessions without scoring earlier in the game, tied in the last minute against Georgetown, up two with the ball with 15 seconds left in OT against Georgetown in the return leg, down three in the last minute against Creighton, and tied with Butler before the Bulldogs opened the game on a 19-2 run. With the exception of that last one, St. John’s has been in all of those games with a chance to win it at the end. I’d attribute the fact that they’ve lost them all to coaching (or lack thereof), but I’m open to being persuaded.
  • Is Scruggernuts arriving? Five of Paul’s seven best games by ORtg have happened in conference play, and the other two were Morehead State and Rider. His ORtg on the year is 88.5, but in Big East games it’s 96.1 (for reference, Q’s numbers are 103.7 and 99.7, respectively). Xavier needs a point guard who can hit some open shots and get the ball to the other four dudes on the floor, all of whom figure to be scoring threats. If Paul is hitting a stride, the Muskies will have a pair of them to throw out there.

Three keys

  • Kick. Thanks largely to Tariq Owens, it’s actually pretty hard to score on St. John’s in the paint. Thanks to the other four dudes and probably the coach, it’s really easy to score on them pretty much everywhere else. If X gets the ball into the middle of the defense, easy jumpers will abound everywhere else.
  • Be quick, but don’t hurry. If you let St. John’s speed you up, they can force turnovers and get out and score. They do love not defending in transition though. If Xavier can pick their spots, they can get out and go, but ball security trumps all other concerns on offense.
  • Waves of dudes. Here’s your game, really. X gets more than a third of their minutes from the bench; St. John’s gets about 22% of theirs. There is a finite number of things St. John’s can implement to try to change the game, and Xavier’s 4 14 bench guys give Coach Mack a much more diverse deck from which to play. Combine that with Coach Mack’s superior coaching chops, and I think Xavier can answer anything St. John’s can put out there.