"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Know your opponent: St. John's

Real Chili. Miss Katie's Diner. Marquette Gyros.

Yes indeed the Marquette Warriors are back in town, hosting St. John's and looking for some home cooking after a three-game road swing that saddled the program with two tough losses. The Warriors enter the game at 15-10 overall and 6-6 BIG EAST. Despite the rough road trip, Marquette remains on the right side of the bubble thanks to a strong strength of schedule. And with only one RPI top 25 team remaining on the regular season schedule, it's time for the Warriors to push for an NCAA bid.

The Johnnies are also enjoying life in the neighborhood of the bubble and are coming off of a clutch win at Cincinnati on Sunday. The win capped a breakthrough week for the Redmen, who blew out UConn at MSG thanks to Dwight Hardy's career-high 33 points. Hardy was named the BIG EAST player of the week for his efforts. St. John's stands at 15-9 overall and 7-5 in the BIG EAST.

Now it's time to learn more about the Johnnies and we're pleased to welcome the inimitable Pico Dulce from Rumble in the Garden for a Q/A about his resurgent Red Storm. By the way, if you'd like to see our assessment of MU -- please click here for our contribution to his site.

Pico, take it away -------------------

When SJU has been good this year, the Johnnies have been very good (Duke, UConn) but when the team has been bad, well (Fordham, Bonnies, Cuse at MSG). What makes the Johnnies so volatile?
The Red Storm (I'm okay using that name, though I'll use Johnnies as well) have some stylistic issues. The way they press and recover, along with how they run their matchup zone (with an eye towards trapping) makes for some exciting results... and some volatile ones as well. So a team that sets its feet and starts hitting threes - especially without turning over the ball - can really run up the score. The way the Johnnies play D, they don't actually get a lot of non-turnover stops compared to many other teams.

In the case of Cuse and the Big East losses, those are games where the Johnnies just lost control of the pace, tried to make plays that weren't there, or got into foul trouble. The team isn't deep, and their margin for error is thin. So when they start making mistakes, they can balloon into something ugly.

I think that's part of what grated UCLA fans' gears about Lavin - the team isn't predictable like a many other coaches' teams. When things are going great, they can smoke opponents like an old John Woo movie. And when they fall apart, the team looks wholly incompetent.

Which player has benefited most from Steve Lavin's system?
Justin Brownlee. Dwight Hardy was always a shooter, and simply gets more time on the court (and has improved his game as well), but Brownlee has become a much better decision-maker. The ball often goes through him on a possession, and Lavin takes advantage of his versatility. Brownlee can catch-and-shoot, can snake in the lane for layup, can hit a short jumper, can shoot from outside, and even has a little hook/ post-up move in his arsenal.

Last year Brownlee seemed to have two moves - the dunk in transition (which he still has), and the Bad Idea Early Offense Jumpshot. It happens from time to time, but much less than it used to.

Defensively St. John's remains a work in progress, struggling to stop opponents from shooting well but turning them over at a high rate. Can you comment on Lavin's defensive philosophy?
Aw, nerds! I did that above. More detail: Lavin likes the matchup zone, likes different kinds of pressure. Wants constant pressing from his teams. He'll look to institute traps to force non-ballhandlers to make decisions, and he has a solid pickoff man in D.J. Kennedy. I think Lavin would like to also have a lockdown FG defense team in his mind, but the style he institutes doesn't show that focus; Lavin's philosophies center on the turnover ratio - smart passing on one end, and constant pressure on the other end.

What is the one thing you'll look for early in the game to indicate if the Johnnies will surge or struggle against MU?

Not one thing. The Johnnies - much like last year, actually - can compete for long stretches, until their offensive weaknesses catch up to them. Then the other team goes on a run, the Johnnies start pressing and making mistakes; that's often the team's undoing.

But if St. John's can force turnovers early and draw some fouls inside - let's say, if the Johnnies can get into the bonus by the 10 minute mark in the first half, I'll think the Red Storm are working their game the way they would like it to be worked.

As you know Monday is Al McGuire Night at the Bradley Center. As a St. John's fan happily living in the Midwest what are your impressions of what he meant to St. John's (or New York) basketball?
uh... I didn't know it was Al McGuire night! To be honest - and to be a bad basketball historian - I just know he was one of St. John's greats and he was awesome at getting that NYC talent to leave NY in a time when Wisconsin was like a different country.

Steve Lavin has changed the vibe on campus for Johnnies hoops. Is the team meeting expectations so far this season -- and where do you expect this team to land up in March?
This team is exceeding expectations, slightly. I thought they would eke out some wins and grind out a 9-9 or 8-10 conference record. I didn't think they would blast Duke, I never would have thought they would have won at West Virginia. They're in some ways fun to watch, and in other ways frustrating. Which is a lot of what I expected. I expected a better offense, honestly, and a better FG defense; taking on multiple 15+ point losses is tough to watch and colors peoples' perceptions of a team (and the coach).

Before last week, I might have said that I expect them to be in the First Four in the NCAA Tournament - assuming they take care of DePaul, Seton Hall, South Florida, and another team. Now? I almost have expectations. I think Lavin has always been fantastic at getting a team to perform loose and effectively during the NCAA Tournament, and the Red Storm are showing that when they get to run. If they don't face a strong interior presence and/or really tall/ long team on the wings, they might actually make the Sweet Sixteen - probably better than what half of the Big East will do, honestly. And it's not because I think they're particularly talented; more because they profile like a mid-major Sweet Sixteen team when they're at their best. Dwight Hardy is the one man show - the Harold Arceneaux, if you will - with a good set of players around him.

Bonus: Admit it ... after moving to Chicago you actually prefer the Midwest to New York. What is your favorite Midwestern comfort food?
I never denied that I prefer the Midwest for living. If I had a LOT more money? I might want to live in NY or Long Island, which I am growing to appreciate. But I like the people, the pace, the space and the ability to actually own things and save money despite paying school loans until I die. It's pretty cool. And biking from place to place. I'm even getting used to driving (though my recent trip to LA helped move the needle on that, strangely).

Comfort food... nothing particularly Midwestern. I like Midwestern beers - the Two Brothers' beers are on point - I like the cheese (and Mars Cheese Castle). I love the burger options. The readily available and good Mexican food. I like how Chicago is quite a foodie city - I wouldn't be so up on things, but my wife is really into food and food policy and food creativity.

Pico, many thanks!

And yes, tonight is Al's Night at the Bradley Center, an annual highlight for the Warriors faithful.

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