Friday, February 25, 2011

A Philadelphia Story That's Similar, But Different

Villanova and St. John's have always been similar to some degree, and still are with potential GQ cover boys Jay Wright and Steve Lavin on the sidelines. (Both photos courtesy of New York Daily News)

For most of the last two decades, you could look at Villanova and St. John's and see many glaring similarities between the two teams, almost as if one school wished it could be the other. The Red Storm held the edge in this rivalry back in the mid-to-late 1990s when Felipe Lopez and Ron Artest were going up against Kerry Kittles and Michael Bradley, only to have the Wildcats turn the tables in the 2000s on the way to winning eight of ten against the Storm, including the last six. In fact, the last time St. John's tasted victory against the Wildcats was back on February 11, 2003, which was also the last time (before this season) the Red Storm defeated Duke. See any familiar trends here?

If St. John's has taught us one thing this season, it's that records are meant to be broken. With a resurgence that has rejuvenated a once-apathetic fan base into the rabid Redmen of old, coupled with its first national ranking since the year 2000, the Johnnies are back; and making a statement for themselves by winning games against Top 25 teams that past incarnations of the boys from Queens would have fallen to pieces against. Led by a local conquering hero in Bronx native and senior guard Dwight Hardy and breakout star swingman Justin Brownlee, these are not your daddy's Johnnies. Head coach Steve Lavin is also following his own yellow brick road to redemption after his triumphant return to the college coaching ranks this past March, while simultaneously redefining the art of coaching, not to mention defying convention with his fashion statements. Since January 30th, Lavin and his staff have taken to wearing sneakers on the court along with deciding to forgo wearing a tie. Originally intended to support the Coaches vs. Cancer initiative, the trend has taken on a life of its own, and the Red Storm is 7-1 in that stretch; with quality wins over Duke, Connecticut and Pittsburgh over that eight-game period, and the coach isn't reverting to the old look anytime soon. "I felt I was doing a more effective job of teaching," Lavin said after his St. John's team upset then-No. 4 Pittsburgh last week at Madison Square Garden. And they call Phil Jackson the Zen Master.

Tomorrow in Philadelphia, Lavin faces a coach similar to him in both appearance and approach as Jay Wright now enters his tenth year on the Main Line since leaving Hofstra to go to Villanova. There are other similar matchups, namely a battle of the Bronx at the point guard position between Hardy and Villanova's Corey Fisher; but it's the glamour matchup of the men in the suits that gets the most attention, and has since the Pitt game last week after Lavin said in his postgame press conference that Wright was the George Clooney of coaches and Lavin's hero. "I'm attracted to Jay, and my wife knows it," joked Lavin when asked about the upcoming matchup with Villanova. The fun didn't stop there, however. At yesterday's pregame press conference on the St. John's campus, Lavin wore a bracelet bearing the phrase "WWJayD?," a satire of the "What Would Jesus Do?" slogan; a gift given to the coach by St. John's athletic communications staff member Mariel Brady.

While St. John's has come in winning five in a row and seven of their last eight, Villanova has struggled recently by losing three of five and playing close games every time out since their 16-point win over West Virginia three weeks ago tomorrow. Both teams have inexplicable losses; but whereas St. John's has seemingly held it together since their collapse against Fordham in December, the Wildcats have dropped close affairs to Rutgers and Providence, both of whom are in the lower half of the Big East standings. Moreover, the City of Brotherly Love has seen two consecutive losses at home, while St. John's has won its last two on the road.

The keys to victory are where the few differences are illustrated, though. For St. John's, it's simple: Get the most out of the matchup zone defense that has stifled the majority of its Big East opponents, while also limiting open looks from beyond the arc and limiting their tendency to foul. The Johnnies also need to get the Villanova big men into foul trouble the same way they did against Gary McGhee of Pittsburgh. For Villanova, it's not the guards this time around. I know you'll read this and think there's something wrong with me given that 'Nova has always been a guard-oriented team; but against a team like St. John's, the Wildcats' strength is in their frontcourt. Antonio Pena and Mouphtaou Yarou are bigger than Brownlee and Dwayne Polee, (who will likely be matched up against them at the opening tip) as well as reserves Justin Burrell and Sean Evans. If Villanova can establish a strong inside game within the opening minutes, they will have already won half the battle; and if the Coreys (Fisher and Stokes) are even moderately effective, this game could be a runaway before it even gets underway.

The lineups, style and coaches can all be compared more than they could be contrasted. Even the student sections are among the best in the Big East, as St. John's "Johnny Jungle" is able to go head-to-head with 'Nova Nation for forty minutes. Yet in this matchup of similarities, there are many differences between the two, (some have been mentioned above) and the winner will be the team that can exploit the differences better than the other.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Full Court Press: Syracuse-Villanova Preview

Corey Fisher, who singlehandedly lifted Villanova over DePaul, gets chance to do it again as Wildcats host Syracuse tonight at Wells Fargo Center. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

If Big East basketball teaches you anything, it is to expect the unexpected at all costs. Remember when St. John's was consistently in the lower half of the conference? I do, and now the Red Storm are ranked 23rd in the country. To expand on that, not many expected Villanova to walk into the Carrier Dome and handily defeat a Syracuse team that was still undefeated five days before that matchup. One month after an 83-72 win in upstate New York, it's the Wildcats' turn to host the Orange in the back end of a home-and-home series between two ranked teams looking to improve their NCAA Tournament seeding; and so the preview begins.

#17 Syracuse Orange (22-6, 9-6 Big East)
Head Coach: Jim Boeheim

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Scoop Jardine (6-2 Jr., 12.2 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.7 SPG, 41% FG, 66% FT)
SG: Brandon Triche (6-4 So., 11.4 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.9 APG, 44% FG, 81% FT)
SF: Kris Joseph (6-7 Jr., 15.0 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 46% FG, 71% FT, 39% 3pt)
PF: Rick Jackson (6-9 Sr., 13.0 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 1.3 SPG, 58% FG, 51% FT)
C: Fab Melo (7-0 Fr., 2.0 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 55% FG, 37% FT)

Key Reserves:
F C.J. Fair (6-8 Fr., 6.5 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 55% FG, 58% FT)
G Dion Waiters (6-4 Fr., 5.9 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 37% FG, 85% FT)
F James Southerland (6-8 So., 5.0 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 41% FG, 75% FT, 36% 3pt)
C Baye Keita (6-10 Fr., 2.5 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 56% FG, 48% FT)

Keys To Victory:
Not Now, Chief, I'm In The Zone
- Any analysis of Syracuse begins (and sometimes ends) with their world-famous 2-3 zone defense that mystifies opponents throughout the night. The key to the Orange while not controlling the ball is junior forward Kris Joseph, who is the centerpiece to the defense as its 6-7 wing man. Syracuse's guards are also known for closing to the three-point line faster than most other teams, something Villanova backcourt partners Corey Fisher, Maalik Wayns and Corey Stokes must keep in mind if they are intent on crushing the Orange a second time.
The Jackson 5 - Rick Jackson may be a power forward, but he plays like a dominating center. With an average of 13 points and 11 rebounds a night, Jackson is the man who runs the offense once the ball gets inside. Not afraid to use his physicality to his advantage, Jackson takes high-percentage shots while also displaying his all-around talent with his unusually high (for a big man) assist and steal totals; and he'll be playing with a little extra incentive tonight, as he and high school teammate Scoop Jardine return home to the Philadelphia area where they grew up for what will be the last time in their collegiate careers.
Charity Begins At Home - At just 66 percent, Syracuse isn't exactly one of the most efficient teams from the free throw line. In fact, only Joseph (71 percent) and Triche (81 percent) are the only starters shooting over a 70 percent clip. Given that Villanova is much more proficient at the stripe, (77 percent as a team) the bigger key here will be to keep Jackson and the platoon of Fab Melo and Baye Keita out of foul trouble, as free points at the line will tip the victory closer into the hands of the Wildcats.

#14 Villanova Wildcats (21-6, 9-5 Big East)
Head Coach: Jay Wright

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Corey Fisher (6-1 Sr., 16.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.7 SPG, 45% FG, 78% FT, 39% 3pt)
SG: Maalik Wayns (6-2 So., 13.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.1 SPG, 41% FG, 82% FT)
SG: Corey Stokes (6-5 Sr., 14.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 43% FG, 94% FT, 42% 3pt)
PF: Antonio Pena (6-8 Sr., 10.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 50% FG, 73% FT)
C: Mouphtaou Yarou (6-10 So., 9.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 49% FG, 67% FT)

Key Reserves:
G Dominic Cheek (6-6 So., 5.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 36% FG, 76% FT)
G James Bell (6-5 Fr., 2.8 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 49% FG, 92% FT, 36% 3pt)
C Maurice Sutton (6-11 So., 2.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 61% FG, 60% FT)
F Isaiah Armwood (6-7 So., 2.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 48% FG, 63% FT)

Keys To Victory:
The Coreys - Definitely not lost boys, Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes have been the backbone of this team, and have become the heart and soul of Villanova basketball just as last year's senior pair of Scottie Reynolds and Reggie Redding were. Fisher has vaulted himself into consideration for the Big East player of the year award, joining a short list of fellow guards Kemba Walker, (UConn) Ben Hansbrough, (Notre Dame) and the red-hot Dwight Hardy. (St. John's) Fisher comes into this matchup fresh off a career-high 34 points against DePaul, a game in which he redeemed himself after committing a late foul in regulation by draining the game-tying three and taking over in overtime.
Guard U - That has been Villanova's nickname over the years, and head coach Jay Wright has made no secret of intimating his desire to play "four quick," with one forward on the court. Wright emphatically assured me at Big East media day that we would see this kind of a lineup during the season, and has not disappointed yet. If the Wildcats do indeed run their "four quick" set, expect Dominic Cheek to be the first option off the bench; and it's quite possible if 'Nova draws fouls on the undersized (at least after Melo and Keita) Syracuse big men.
Bigger And Better Than Ever - It's usually the smaller players that command most of the attention on the Main Line, but Jay Wright has done an impressive job with reforming his frontcourt after the departures of Taylor King and Jayvaughn Pinkston. Antonio Pena is in the midst of his best season, while sophomore Mouphtaou Yarou is one of the most improved players in the country, let alone the Big East.

So, Who Wins?
In the world of the Big East, it's actually a safe bet to say each game will be highly competitive, and just leave it at that. However, both teams will have something to play for immediately following this game; which makes tonight all the more important. Syracuse continues their road trip by heading down to our nation's capital for a Saturday matinee with Georgetown, while Villanova remains inside the Wells Fargo (formerly CoreStates/First Union/Wachovia) Center for a Saturday contest against 23rd-ranked St. John's, making their long-awaited return to the polls for the first time since November 2000, when yours truly was a freshman in high school. (For a more detailed look at the long road traveled by the boys from Queens, my friend and WSJU Radio colleague Dan Martin puts it into perspective here)

Back to the game at hand if I may. Syracuse is the gunslinging team with the zone defense, while Villanova is the guard-oriented squad with deceptive strength in every aspect of the game. This will be the epitome of knock-down, drag-out brawl, with Villanova just coming away victorious.

Your Final: Villanova 79, Syracuse 76

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Full Court Press: Utah State-St. Mary's Preview

Mickey McConnell looks to shoot St. Mary's into a higher NCAA Tournament seed as Gaels host Utah State tomorrow night in BracketBuster matchup. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

This is probably the most unorthodox and unexpected pregame preview I've done, but it never hurts to branch out. In one corner is a team fresh off a Sweet 16 appearance and poised to take over as the dominant team in their conference; the other home to a team that has managed to hang around the lower part of the Top 25 over each of the last several years. Two perennial tournament participants, one underrated nonconference matchup as we gear up for an entertaining stretch run. Without any further ado...

#24 Utah State Aggies (24-3, 12-1 Western Athletic)
Head Coach: Stew Morrill

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Brockeith Pane (6-1 Jr., 11.1 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 3.2 APG, 43% FG, 78% FT)
SG: Pooh Williams (6-4 Sr., 9.0 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 2.7 APG, 39% FG, 79% FT, 39% 3pt)
SF: Tyler Newbold (6-5 Sr., 6.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.8 APG, 41% FG, 76% FT, 35% 3pt)
PF: Tai Wesley (6-7 Sr., 14.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.3 APG, 59% FG, 72% FT)
C: Nate Bendall (6-9 Sr., 5.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 49% FG, 70% FT)

Key Reserves:
G Brian Green (6-1 Sr., 10.7 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 46% FG, 76% FT, 45% 3pt)
F Brady Jardine (6-7 Jr., 8.3 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 55% FG, 63% FT)

Keys To Victory:
A Different World - Moraga, California is a long way from Logan, Utah; but despite the geographical disparity, the two schools are somewhat similar. Utah State will have to navigate the crowd without the support of its notorious student section, which is easier said than done. If the Aggies need any pointers on how to play an NCAA Tournament-caliber game at the McKeon Pavilion, all coach Stew Morrill needs to do is reach out to Steve Lavin, whose St. John's team gave the Gaels all they could handle back in November in a hard-fought five-point loss.
Shoot 'Em Up - The Aggies don't hesitate to show you that they're one of the more proficient groups of marksmen, shooting 47 percent from the field and 37 percent from beyond the arc, compared to 39 and 31 for their collective opponents, respectively. Big men Tai Wesley and Brady Jardine are the high-percentage shot takers for Utah State, shooting 59 and 55 percent from the field respectively, while fellow forward Nate Bendall isn't that far behind with his 49 percent clip.
Green Means Go - Not at the opening tip, but definitely at some point. Guard Brian Green is the Aggies' top sub, averaging just under 11 points per game in just 25 minutes. Green is the long-range threat on this team, as 59 of his 92 field goals are trifectas. Since he's not as inclined to dish it out as some of his teammates are, it wouldn't be a surprise if he hooked up with Clint Steindl in a battle from behind the line.

#23 St. Mary's Gaels (22-5, 10-2 West Coast)
Head Coach: Randy Bennett

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Mickey McConnell (6-0 Sr., 16.9 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 6.2 APG, 1.1 SPG, 52% FG, 89% FT, 47% 3pt)
SG: Matthew Dellavedova (6-4 So., 12.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 5.4 APG, 1.4 SPG, 41% FG, 88% FT, 37% 3pt)
SF: Clint Steindl (6-7 Jr., 7.1 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 43% FG, 50% FT, 42% 3pt)
PF: Rob Jones (6-6 Jr., 13.8 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.0 SPG, 47% FG, 75% FT)
C: Tim Williams (6-9 So., 5.4 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 56% FG, 70% FT)

Key Reserves:
F Mitchell Young (6-9 So., 10.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 62% FG, 57% FT)
F Kenton Walker (6-9 Jr., 6.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 54% FG, 57% FT)
G Stephen Holt (6-4 Fr., 5.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 41% FG, 83% FT)

Keys To Victory:
Spread Offense - With four members of their regular rotation averaging double figures and a balanced unit whose nightly median is 80 points per contest, it's no secret that St. Mary's is a hardwood version of the Millrose Games. A track meet for any opponent who faces them, the Gaels have broken 70 in all but three games this season; including 12 where they have gone for over 80. Moreover, if you thought Utah State's shooting numbers were impressive, St. Mary's blows them out of the water with clips of 50 percent from the field and 39 from three.
Mac Attack - Those who know me well know that I've used that expression to describe the St. John's women's basketball team that Kim Barnes Arico has built from the ground up into a perennial NCAA Tournament contender. This time, however, the term will be used to describe Mickey McConnell. The Gaels' senior point guard has an all-around stat line that will simply make you say "OH BABY." Seriously. I knew the kid was good, (having seen his breakout NCAA Tournament last year, and that was with Omar Samhan stealing his spotlight) but not this good. Averages of 17 points, six assists, a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio, 52 percent from the field and 47 percent from the land of the three-ball are numbers that don't pop up overnight. It's just a shame he and Jimmer Fredette are seniors. With Brigham Young moving into the West Coast Conference next year, just imagine the show Mickey and The Jimmer would put on twice each season.
Bloomin' Onions - Randy Bennett became known for his Australian pipeline when Patty Mills was his first superstar player in Moraga. Now, Bennett has a pair of Aussies in sophomore Matthew Dellavedova and junior Clint Steindl; both of whom are also as trifecta-talented as McConnell. Dellavedova reminds me a lot of a shorter and slightly more productive Chase Budinger during his days at Arizona, only with a higher assist total and lower rebound total. Steindl has blossomed into a pure shooter who can (and will) kill from long range if given the opportunity, as evidenced by his 22-point performance against the debut of the St. John's matchup zone in what turned out to be his coming-out party.

So, Who Wins?
It will be a packed house at the McKeon Pavilion one way or another; and while the two teams appear to be evenly matched on paper, it won't be as close as some may think. I mentioned that both schools have turned themselves into NCAA Tournament regulars, but Utah State will need a national championship performance from their unit to take the Gaels down. Both are experienced, but St. Mary's is loaded with just a little more. In fact, look for McConnell to singlehandedly make the difference in this one as the Gaels play themselves away from a prospective 7/10 or 8/9 game in the Big Dance and closer to maybe a 5 or 6 seed.

Your Final: St. Mary's 78, Utah State 67

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Definition Of Survivor

He's been through it all, but Rick Pitino has managed to remain at the top of his game with no signs of fading away anytime soon. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

It hasn't been an easy life for Rick Pitino in recent years, and the Louisville coach will be the first one to tell you that. From the day he returned to the college ranks at Kentucky after a brief tour of duty with the New York Knicks to a career that included a stop with the Boston Celtics before ultimately landing with the Cardinals, Pitino has seen his share of controversy; and has been at the center of it at times. Despite all the drama surrounding the 58-year-old Brooklyn native, be it the Karen Sypher incident or the loss of brother-in-law and close friend Billy Minardi in the September 11th attacks, Pitino has managed to remain what he has been for parts of four decades now: One of the elite coaches in the nation, getting the most out of a team that was not expected to do this much after losing two-thirds of its starting backcourt as well as its star forward after last season's NCAA Tournament appearance.

At Big East media day, Pitino retained his usual brutal honesty when saying that there would be certain players on this team asked to step it up this season in the absence of Edgar Sosa, Jerry Smith and Samardo Samuels. So far, the contributions of Louisville's team as a whole have been impressive, especially when you consider the unusually high amount of injuries Pitino's squad has had to endure this season. When I asked the coach (a favorite of mine due to his refusal to hold anything back when asked a question) about the parts of the team that impressed him most through this point of the season on last week's Big East coaches' conference call, he had this to say:

"This team has been very rewarding to coach in terms of the talent they give. It's difficult to win in the Big East, period. You don't know where the next win is going to come. This team has weathered a lot of different storms to the point where we've practiced with managers."
- Rick Pitino on Louisville's performance

A big key to the Cardinals' ability to overcome adversity (besides their leader on the bench) is how Pitino approaches the rigorous Big East schedule, an 18-game endurance test that the coach breaks down into six segments of three games each. So far this season, including Louisville's stunning 73-67 victory at the Yum! Center against Syracuse yesterday, the Cardinals have won each of those segments by taking two out of three games. It is this approach that has silently landed Louisville at 8-4 in the Big East, good enough to earn the double bye in the Big East tournament that comes with being one of the top four teams in the conference if the season ended today.

Louisville's next segment comes against UConn, Cincinnati and Rutgers; and each one presents its own unique challenge. However, that's just fine for the Cardinals, given their ability to survive under the direction and leadership of a coach that has done that for over thirty years with no end to those tactics in sight.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bubble Boys, But Maybe Not For Long

Leave it to New York native Jerry Seinfeld to introduce the world-famous "bubble boy." However, unlike the episode of the hit 1990s sitcom, there is more than one bubble boy taking center stage in 2011. In fact, there are approximately 15 to be exact; and like Seinfeld, they hail from the Empire State. I'm talking about the St. John's Red Storm, who added yet another convincing argument to their case for returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002 with their 89-72 domination of ninth-ranked Connecticut last night; the Johnnies' fourth victory over a Top 25 team this season and third against one ranked within the Top 10.

For all the naysayers that still consider Steve Lavin to be a recruiter with no talent or ability on the court, last night was Exhibit A of Lavin's coaching acumen, which he considers enhanced by his "sabbatical" as a color commentator on ESPN for the last seven years prior to arriving on the corner of Union and Utopia on March 31st when he was officially introduced as the new Red Storm head man. With a record of 14-9 and a roster of players recruited by previous coach Norm Roberts, Lavin's sole connection to this squad going into the season was his job title. Almost a year later, Lavin has instilled his positive outlook, extroverted disposition and placid demeanor into a team that most had left for dead after only posting two winning seasons during Roberts' six-year tenure on the bench.

Under Roberts, St. John's had posted upsets over Top 25 teams; but those landmark wins came infrequently over six years, and had not been seen since the aforementioned (in past posts) 71-65 win over then-No. 7 Notre Dame at Madison Square Garden on January 3, 2009. Lavin posted his first Top 25 win two years to that day, (61-58 over then-No. 13 Georgetown) followed by three more: A 72-54 thrashing of then-No. 9 Notre Dame on January 16th, the epic 93-78 dismantling of third-ranked Duke on January 30th, and last night against UConn. All four of these quality wins have come at the Garden, where St. John's is 6-1 this season, with the lone loss coming January 12th against Syracuse. Three years ago, St. John's was 1-6 inside the "World's Most Famous Arena," with the sole victory coming in the Holiday Festival semifinals, a three-point decision against Marist.

Joining the quartet of home wins against teams that are part of the polls is the Johnnies' 81-71 road win against West Virginia in their Big East opener on December 31st, and fans, critics and experts alike argue that this is enough for St. John's to have locked up a tournament spot. However, 14-9 only scratches the surface, it doesn't shatter it. The positives for the Johnnies, you might ask? For starters, their RPI has moved up to 19, (courtesy of while their strength of schedule remains No. 1 in the country. In fact, the Red Storm ledger garnered attention on the local airwaves here in New York this afternoon. In an interview with my friend and colleague Evan Roberts on WFAN's midday show, Lavin spoke about his decision to go against the grain early in the season. "A lot of teams load up on cupcakes and cream puffs," Lavin told Roberts when asked about his scheduling of a cross-country road trip to St. Mary's as opposed to playing low-major teams at home inside Carnesecca Arena as the team had done for the last six years under Roberts. "We didn't do that."

For every positive, (in this case, RPI and strength of schedule) there is a negative. (bad losses against St. Bonaventure and Fordham, as well as a 14-9 record) With seven games remaining, St. John's needs at least four wins to secure a spot in the Big Dance. The selection committee approaches teams like basic strategy in blackjack. For those unfamiliar with the analogy, I'll explain. In blackjack, the house hits on 16 and all hands under; and stays on 17 and all hands higher. Not counting conference tournaments, the committee usually hits by looking at a team's resume more closely when they have 17 (or less) regular-season wins; whereas they tend to give the thumbs-up to programs with 18 (or more) victories heading into a conference tournament. Of the seven left for the Red Storm, four wins would put them at 18-12 and 10-8 in the Big East. Here's a look at what's ahead, with a brief analysis of each one:

1) Sunday at Cincinnati - St. John's looks for revenge against a Bearcats team that stole a win away from them on January 22nd at Carnesecca Arena. Cincinnati, however, is 13-1 on their home court at Fifth Third Arena; but the loss was an 11-point defeat at the hands of a West Virginia team St. John's owns a road win against.
2) Tuesday at Marquette - Arguably the hardest game to figure out down the stretch. St. John's hasn't beaten Marquette since February 26, 1966; when Steve Lavin was just 17 months old and Golden Eagles coach Buzz Williams wasn't even conceived yet. Either way, the Red Storm have shown us to expect the unexpected, even if Marquette does not have a bad loss this season; and took both Wisconsin and UConn to the limit in both of their losses at the Bradley Center.
3) Saturday, February 19th vs. Pittsburgh - The last of eight games at Madison Square Garden this season comes against a buzzsaw Pitt team that could be without Ashton Gibbs depending on how soon he comes back from an injured MCL. Pitt has only lost twice this season, once to Tennessee on a neutral court; with the other defeat coming at the Petersen Center against Notre Dame, who split with the Johnnies this season.
4) Wednesday, February 23rd vs. DePaul - Just as Marquette is the hardest to figure out, DePaul is the easiest to decipher. Nothing against the Blue Demons, who have lost 46 of their last 47 Big East games since the 2008-09 season; (not counting their Big East tournament win against Cincinnati in March 2009) but St. John's is just more talented.
5) Saturday, February 26th at Villanova - This one just became a little more complex after Jonathan Mitchell's four-point play at the RAC Wednesday night defeated the Wildcats, but Jay Wright always seems to have the right formula for defeating St. John's. Throw in one of the best student sections in the country in 'Nova Nation, and you have an atmosphere that spells trouble for visitors if nothing else.
6) Thursday, March 3rd at Seton Hall - The trap game of the remaining seven in my opinion. St. John's has only been to the Prudential Center one time, and it wasn't pretty. I had the honor of doing play-by-play for WSJU Radio at the Rock on February 5, 2009 when Seton Hall got off to a 31-9 start before ultimately prevailing by the final of 91-81. Jeremy Hazell, who went off for 31 against the Storm that night, is once again healthy; and is capable of killing the Johnnies as he has in the past. That is, if he is able to overcome the matchup zone that rendered Kemba Walker into a non-factor last night for UConn.
7) Saturday, March 5th vs. South Florida - Senior night at Carnesecca Arena should be a win, although USF has shown flashes of being competitive this season. (Look at their near-upset of UConn) However, this Bulls team has clearly shown it is not half as good without Dominique Jones, who skipped his junior season to turn pro; and is now a member of the Dallas Mavericks.

So there you have it. I'd love to hear your thoughts on where St. John's will go down the stretch and what will ultimately become of them, either by adding comments here or on Twitter at

They may be living in a bubble, but if St. John's has their way, it won't be for much longer.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Amazing Jonathan

Jonathan Mitchell continues to defy convention and improve with each passing day, as his four-point play with :00.8 seconds left lifts Rutgers to 77-76 upset over Villanova. (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)

Eight days ago, Rutgers took my alma mater of St. John's to the limit at Carnesecca Arena before ultimately falling short on a Justin Brownlee game-winner. After the final buzzer, I immediately concluded that the Scarlet Knights were the Rocky Balboa of the Big East. For those unfamiliar with the analogy, just watch the end of the first "Rocky" movie, where although Apollo Creed wins the fight, Rocky wins the war by gaining more credibility; and ultimately the heavyweight championship in "Rocky II."

The Scarlet Knights had won me over before that thanks to coach Mike Rice; but the more I watched the team, one player stood out in particular. This player had been through an emotional roller coaster of sorts, from winning a national championship as a true freshman at Florida to having to transfer due to lack of playing time with the Gators. A product of upstate New York, growing up in the shadows of the Bronx in Mount Vernon, he is the embodiment of a warrior. A man who refuses to let criticism or anything else get the best of him, one who just goes out and takes care of business every night. The first time I saw him, he scored 20 against North Carolina at Madison Square Garden; and although a senior, I sensed he could really be something special. That was the first time I got to see Jonathan Mitchell.

Just over a month later, "J-Mitch" has continued to elevate his already vast talent, doing so to the tune of 24 points against St. John's and 25 last night against Villanova, the last four of those coming on a four-point play with :00.8 seconds remaining in regulation after Mitchell drained a three while drawing a foul on the Wildcats' Corey Fisher. Less than 24 hours after the shot, (which was called brilliantly by my friend and colleague Chris Carlin, who handled radio play-by-play for the Scarlet Knights on WOR) coaches across the Big East could not stop raving about Mitchell, even those who had unsuccessfully tried to recruit him.

"We recruited him out of high school," said Villanova head man Jay Wright, who was burned firsthand by Mitchell's heroics last night. "I'm not surprised that he gets better and better every year." South Florida's Stan Heath, who was also on the losing end of a battle against Rutgers, also praised Mitchell on this morning's Big East coaches' conference call. "You could tell he's playing like a senior," said the affable Heath. "He's playing inspirational basketball." Notre Dame coach Mike Brey commented about how he had two chances to land Mitchell in South Bend, losing out both after Mitchell graduated high school and left Florida; however the coach insisted that he has "always loved him." Cincinnati's Mick Cronin added perhaps the greatest praise for Mitchell, calling his shot-making ability "tremendous;" and even going so far as to call him "one of the better players in our league and one of the most underrated players in our conference."

Mitchell's own coach lauded his senior swingman as someone who was "trying to carry us and become a leader" after the loss at St. John's. This morning, Mike Rice said it was "unbelievable" as to how much he has grown and come outside himself. "Every single day, he refuses to listen to anybody. He's one of the guys I'll always owe the beginning of our success to, and one of the guys I'll always remember."

From someone who has covered his share of underrated players, (coincidentally, most of them have played against St. John's) it's nice to see someone like Mitchell succeed; and as a fan turned media member, I can agree with Mike Rice on many things, none more so than this:

Jonathan Mitchell is one of the guys that I, too, will always remember.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Postgame Shootaround: St. John's vs. UCLA

Steve Lavin, shown here in his earlier years at UCLA, returned to Westwood today for first time since 2003, but didn't get to leave a winner as St. John's fell to Bruins 66-59. (Photo courtesy of

The day before the Super Bowl was hyped as a Super Bowl of sorts for St. John's for months before the season even started. When your big-name coach gets a chance to return to the place he called home for seven years as a first-time visitor, not much else can be expected. While St. John's players went into Los Angeles with the intent of winning one for coach Steve Lavin, their opponents had other ideas.

Despite a career-high 32 points from Dwight Hardy, St. John's (13-9) was unable to overcome all the obstacles at Pauley Pavilion, falling to UCLA (16-7) by the final of 66-59. UCLA was led by center Joshua Smith, who paced the Bruins with 19 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. Reeves Nelson provided 12 points for the home team, perhaps none bigger than his three-pointer in the final minute that put UCLA ahead 65-59 after the Johnnies had cut a ten-point deficit to three as the second half wore on. Malcolm Lee also chipped in with 15 points for the Bruins, whose NCAA Tournament chances were enhanced about as much as St. John's dreams were potentially dashed.

The game was ultimately decided at the free throw line, where the Red Storm's 23 fouls sent UCLA to the line 41 times during the game as opposed to just seven foul shots for St. John's. Five of the nine players used by Lavin in his homecoming accumulated three or more fouls; and UCLA received the double bonus halfway through the second half, racking up two shots for every infraction over the final ten minutes. St. John's was also outrebounded 37-27 despite a plus-8 turnover margin. (St. John's forced 18 turnovers while only committing 10)

St. John's returns to Big East play Thursday night with a crucial game against perennial adversary UConn at Madison Square Garden before starting an equally pivotal road trip to Cincinnati and Marquette. Before the Huskies come into town, here's a recap of what happened in the City of Angels this afternoon (morning on the West Coast since it was a 10am tipoff there) with some lasting impressions.

  • Justin Brownlee, the hero of Wednesday night's game against Rutgers, was a non-factor today with his 1-for-9 performance from the field. Brownlee had two chances to potentially pull St. John's within one in the final two minutes; but was unable to convert on both of his layup attempts, setting the stage for Reeves Nelson's dagger from long-range that gave the Bruins the win.
  • The balanced attack Steve Lavin praised in the Rutgers win was nowhere to be found today, as Dwight Hardy outscored the rest of the team 32-27. Hardy's new career high was set on 13-of-24 shooting, but no other Johnny scored more than six.
  • Whenever a team gets at least 20 foul shots, they stand a great chance to win the game. UCLA doubled that number and added one more for good measure with their 41 free throw attempts, compared to just seven for St. John's.
  • Some experts may argue that St. John's is still an NCAA Tournament team today, but this loss could start a downward spiral if the Johnnies are not careful. With UConn, Cincinnati, Marquette and Pitt up next before DePaul comes into Carnesecca Arena on February 23rd, St. John's has to salvage a split of the next four games in order to maintain their positive outlook with the selection committee. UConn could be easy if Kemba Walker continues to struggle, but playing in Madison Square Garden could be the spark he needs. Two years ago, the Bronx native returned to the Garden for the first time since playing in the CHSAA playoffs at Rice High School under current St. John's director of basketball operations Maurice Hicks, then the coach of the Raiders. Walker led all scorers with 21 points off the bench that night en route to a Huskies victory.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Open Mike Excites Jersey Knights

As expected, Mike Rice is making a difference at Rutgers, but much quicker than expected. (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)

At the start of the season, everyone who knew Rutgers and new coach Mike Rice expected a positive marriage. However, not everyone expected so much so soon.

Even after last night's road loss to St. John's, the Scarlet Knights are performing much better than anyone could have envisioned; with a 12-10 record that includes a 9-3 mark in nonconference games. In fact, if Rutgers can pick up at least three more wins down the stretch; which given their schedule is not impossible, coupled with a win in the Big East tournament next month, it's not inconceivable to think that the Scarlet Knights can pick up an invite to the NIT. Considering what Rice inherited following the resignation of Fred Hill and departures of Mike Rosario, Greg Echenique and Pat Jackson, it would be a monumental improvement on the banks of the old Raritan.

Say what you want about his on-court demeanor, but the fact remains that the 41-year-old Rice can coach just as well, if not better than, his counterparts in the Big East. Just four years into a head coaching career that began at two-time defending Northeast Conference champion Robert Morris, Rice has remained positive during his maiden voyage in Piscataway, not an easy feat considering the hard times that have befallen Rutgers in recent years. However, Rice has been assisted in keeping an enthusiastic disposition with the play of his roster, namely senior forward Jonathan Mitchell, who carried the Knights last night with 21 in their losing effort against Steve Lavin and the Red Storm.

Rice only plays a nine-man rotation due to lack of depth on his bench, through no fault of his own. That will change next year when the highly regarded Rutgers recruiting class makes its way into Piscataway, where they will learn Rice's style, described to me by the coach at Big East media day as an "intense and aggressive" brand of basketball that "emphasizes teamwork over talent." While Rice's students made significant headway at the start of the season by winning nine of their first twelve, they have struggled in Big East play, losing seven of ten. Yet somehow, Rice is doing the same thing he was able to do at Robert Morris in guiding the Colonials to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments and a near-upset of Villanova; and that is continuing to get so much out of so little.

When I watched Rutgers for the first time in person this season against North Carolina, there honestly wasn't much to be impressed about with the Scarlet Knights other than Rice's intensity on the bench. Just over a month later, the Scarlet Knights have done a complete 180 and are playing much harder as a team; and I couldn't help but compare Rutgers' play last night to the end of the first "Rocky" movie. Apollo Creed (St. John's last night) may have won the battle, but Rocky Balboa (Rutgers) gained more credibility and eventually won the war. Whether the Scarlet Knights do indeed come out on top remains to be seen; but they have already come much further than anyone would have imagined possible at this point, thanks to a great coach and even better person.