Thursday, January 6, 2011

Full Court Press: St. John's-Notre Dame Preview

Arguably the most improved player in the country, Justin Brownlee leads St. John's into South Bend looking for second straight road win against Fighting Irish. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

They're the talk of the Big East after opening conference play with three consecutive wins, and the buzz that has enveloped New York City since Steve Lavin replaced Norm Roberts at St. John's is reaching crescendos not seen since the glory days of Lou Carnesecca in the 1980s. After their stunning 61-58 disposal of No. 13 Georgetown, the Johnnies set their sights on another ranked opponent this Saturday when they take on 14th-ranked Notre Dame at the Joyce Center in South Bend. Although Notre Dame leads the all-time series, the Red Storm have taken two of the last three against the Irish; including a 69-68 win in the last meeting between the two schools back on February 14th of last year in the Hoosier State. On top of that, the last time Notre Dame was ranked when they played St. John's, the Storm pulled off a 71-65 upset at Madison Square Garden on January 3rd, 2009 in what still ranks as the biggest win of coach Norm Roberts' six-year tenure. Some of the personnel may have changed, but the method we use to get you prepared for the joust at the Joyce Center will not. Without any further ado...

St. John's Red Storm (10-3, 3-0 Big East)
Head Coach: Steve Lavin

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Malik Boothe (5-9 Sr., 4.3 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 39% FG, 59% FT)
SG: Dwight Hardy (6-1 Sr., 16.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.4 SPG, 44% FG, 92% FT)
SF: D.J. Kennedy (6-5 Sr., 11.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.5 SPG, 51% FG, 74% FT, 38% 3pt)
PF: Justin Brownlee (6-7 Sr., 14.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.2 BPG, 55% FG, 72% FT, 38% 3pt)
C: Dele Coker (6-10 Sr., 1.1 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 33% FG)

Key Reserves:
F Justin Burrell (6-8 Sr., 7.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 59% FG, 52% FT)
F Dwayne Polee (6-7 Fr., 5.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 44% FG, 70% FT)
G Paris Horne (6-3 Sr., 6.9 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 51% FG, 50% FT, 43% 3pt)

Keys To Victory:
Bronx Bomber - Through the Johnnies' five-game winning streak since the shocking Fordham loss, Dwight Hardy has been the sparkplug for Steve Lavin, scoring at least 20 in each of his last four contests and six of his last seven. Lavin said following the Georgetown win that his staff has tried to encourage him similar to Burgess Meredith's affable Mickey character in the "Rocky" movies, and it looks like he's paying off. Maybe it's just a coincidence being that he's from the Bronx, but Hardy is one of many Johnnies playing the role of the 2009 New York Yankees on this Red Storm team. For those not sure where I'm going with this analogy, the Yankees' turning point that season came on June 24th against the Braves when manager Joe Girardi was ejected and general manager Brian Cashman was in Atlanta while the incident took place. The Red Storm view December 11th of last year as their turning point. What happened that night, you might ask? That was the night of the 21-point comeback staged by Fordham to upset St. John's on the Rams' home court at Rose Hill Gym in, you guessed it, the Bronx. Anyway, I digress. Hardy has also demonstrated an ability not to rely on his outside shot this year, and it's contributing to the Johnnies shooting 48 percent from the field as a team, a better number than the 45 percent carried by the Irish into Saturday night's matchup.
What Can Brown Do For You? - It's the slogan for UPS, and Justin Brownlee has been more reliable than those delivery guys in the truck this season. Brownlee has come from seemingly out of nowhere (he was the fourth or fifth option at best off Norm Roberts' bench a year ago) to be Steve Lavin's most versatile player, and also the most gifted in crunch time. Brownlee may have the hardware awarded to him as most valuable player of the Great Alaska Shootout and Holiday Festival, and he earned those trophies with gritty double-figure scoring and well-rounded overall efforts. For those not sold on his clutch performances, watch the end of this past Monday's Georgetown game, where the former junior college star drove in to rebound a missed Dwight Hardy layup for what proved to be the game-winning bucket that lifted the Johnnies over the Hoyas for the third time in their last four meetings. Brownlee has done a little bit of everything this season, and could exploit both Carleton Scott and Tyrone Nash, depending on who he draws as a matchup.
Hit Me - If you're familiar with my work or anyone else affiliated with my former outlet of WSJU, you know that D.J. Kennedy has earned the moniker of "The Hitman," a nickname that has stuck since his sophomore campaign of 2008-09. (Credit Keith Arias for starting that legend while doing color commentary alongside me against Howard on November 22nd, 2008. In fact, Keith also shared the call with me for the aforementioned January 3rd, 2009 encounter between the Johnnies and Irish at Madison Square Garden) Nonetheless, Kennedy is a much better player when he recognizes the need to take the game over. A positive credit to St. John's evolution as a team this season is that other players have stepped up and alleviated some of the pressure Kennedy has faced earlier in his career, but the fact remains that the man who wears jersey No. 1 is still option No. 1, and priority No. 1 for opposing coaches. Expect his assignment of Tim Abromaitis to be the highlight matchup of the night, as both are mirror images of one another.

#14 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (13-2, 2-1 Big East)
Head Coach: Mike Brey

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Ben Hansbrough (6-3 Sr., 15.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.1 SPG, 44% FG, 80% FT, 45% 3pt)
SG: Scott Martin (6-8 Sr., 10.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 45% FG, 63% FT)
SF: Tim Abromaitis (6-8 Sr., 16.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 44% FG, 80% FT, 40% 3pt)
PF: Carleton Scott (6-8 Sr., 11.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.8 BPG, 51% FG, 88% FT, 35% 3pt)
C: Tyrone Nash (6-8 Sr., 10.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.8 APG, 44% FG, 74% FT)

Key Reserves:
G Eric Atkins (6-2 Fr., 6.4 PPG, 2.9 APG, 3.4 APG, 39% FG, 63% FT, 35% 3pt)
F Jack Cooley (6-9 So., 4.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 67% FG, 65% FT)

Keys To Victory:
Boys To Men
- This has nothing to do with the Philadelphia-based R&B group, hence the different spelling. As someone who covers the Big East regularly, I look at Notre Dame this year and I see names that look like they've been on the roster forever. While Mike Brey's frontcourt of Tim Abromaitis, Carleton Scott and Tyrone Nash have only spent four years in South Bend, it just feels that way because they've waited for the opportunity to shine. Having played alongside players the likes of Rob Kurz, Kyle McAlarney, Zach Hillesland, Ryan Ayers, Luke Zeller, Luke Harangody, Tory Jackson and Jonathan Peoples (all listed in order of graduation) will give you that feeling, and at the same time make these players better and more mature than they would be at other programs. Mike Brey told me at Big East media day that one of the things that impressed him last year has how his team "learned how to win" without Harangody, who was injured last year and missed almost half of his senior campaign, most notably the bulk of the Big East schedule. So far, the chemistry developed in the absence of Harangody, now a backup for the Boston Celtics, has been a boon to the Irish, and will continue to be. On top of that, what makes this matchup even more intriguing is the matchup of Notre Dame's all-senior starting lineup against St. John's quintet of fourth-year starters. The only difference is St. John's has five more on their bench to just one on the Irish bench.
Sizing Them Up - Notre Dame possesses four starters that measure 6-8, but aside from reserve 6-9 Luke Harangody lookalike Jack Cooley, that's as big as you'll get in South Bend. While some look at the size difference in the backcourt and at the small forward position and assume that it is a mismatch in favor of the Irish, but in reality it's about even for both sides. The one advantage Notre Dame may have is their outside shooting. (The Irish come into Saturday night's contest shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc as a team) If Hansbrough and Abromaitis (and possibly Scott Martin as well) can get into a rhythm early, they can effectively beat the zone defense that St. John's is sure to unveil at some point. However, the Johnnies have a history of coming to play against Notre Dame. Just look back to the aforementioned January 2009 matchup, when Kyle McAlarney was consistently shooting with a hand in his face, a credit to the relentless defense of Paris Horne. The Staten Islander McAlarney, who came into that game shooting 46 percent from long range, only made one trifecta on the day and was held to just 10 points as the Red Storm turned Notre Dame into a one-dimensional team that Luke Harangody had to keep in contention singlehandedly.
Walk The Line - Any team that plays St. John's will always look at free throws as a deciding factor given the Johnnies' struggles from the charity stripe in years past. As Notre Dame comes in shooting 73 percent from the line collectively, (compared to just 68 for St. John's) look for the Irish to be excessively physical as they attempt to draw fouls. On the defensive side of the ball, Notre Dame has to be careful not to foul Dwight Hardy, who has missed just six foul shots on the year, good enough for a Mark Price-like 92 percent clip at the line.

So, Who Wins?
This truly is a matchup that could go either way. While Notre Dame has surprised many with their early success, (including home wins over Georgetown and UConn) they are just as easily vulnerable, as evidenced by their inefficiency to keep up with Kentucky and Syracuse in the second half. Throw in their historic dominance at the Joyce Center and you have a recipe for gold and blue success. St. John's has managed to obscure that aura just a bit after stealing a victory in South Bend last year, and will look for their third win in the last four meetings against the Irish. (Sound familiar? It should, because the Georgetown game had the same scenario) The Johnnies are in the midst of their second of eight straight games against Top 25 teams, and I do not exaggerate when I say that each game is a bigger gut check than the one that preceded it. Time now for the final 2009 comparison of the night, and this one is the most relevant: When St. John's welcomed Notre Dame to the Garden two years ago, it was their chance to prove that they could contend with the top of the conference. This time around, the Notre Dame game is an opportunity for St. John's to prove that it could not only contend for forty minutes, but contend throughout the season while continuing to make the statement that they belong among the Big East's elite.

Your Final: St. John's 77, Notre Dame 72 (in overtime)

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