Scouting St Johns!! Red Storm Rising!!!
Andy Mac Williams,
St Johns struggled mightily their first season under new head coach Chris Mullin(8-24,1-17 in the Big East,lost 21 of their last 22 games). About the only bright spot was a mid-December Madison Square Garden win over Syracuse although the Johnnies showed some grit giving both Villanova and Seton Hall very competitive games at MSG. Xavier beat SJU twice-74-66 in Queens and 90-83 at Cintas. St Johns showed fight and resilience in both games.
The players were buying into the NBA style Mullin was marketing. Steve Lavin left the cupboard pretty empty of talent. Mullin is doing a complete re-build with the help of fellow NBA All Star Mitch Richmond,Greg St Jean whose dad Gary coached a bunch of years in the NBA and ace recruiter Matt Abdelmassih-a NYC guy who graduated from St Johns and helped Fred Hoiberg make Iowa state into a Big 12 force before Hoiberg departed for the Chicago Bulls. Mullin is honing in on the fertile New York-New Jersey high school and AAU scene and he's making inroads.
In fact,SJU(8-8 overall) is the early surprise in the loaded Big East with a 2-1 record-tied for second with Villanova,Butler and Creighton behind the only unbeaten team in the league-your Xavier Muskies at 2-0(wins over Providence 82-56 at Cintas and 81-76 at Georgetown).
THE JOHNNIES SO FAR:
SJU got off to a 2-5 start using a ton of new players against a pretty rigorous schedule. They lost their Gavitt Games Big Ten match-up at Minnesota-then dropped 3 straight against a stacked bracket in the Battle for Atlantis(losses to Michigan State,VCU and Old Dominion) and hit rock bottom with a home clunker against sub 300 RPI Delaware State.They kept working.
A 93-60 pummeling of Syracuse under the Carrier Dome just before Christmas set-up a fast Big East start. SJU upset #13 Butler 76-73 at Carnesseca Arena to open league play in a shocker. BU blew a 10 point second half lead and turned the ball over 13 times. Butler's for real!! They now own 4 Top 25 wins(Arizona,UC,Indiana and Villanova).
SJU got a huge game from 6-1 Frosh Guard Shamorie Ponds(26 points-7 rebounds). Ponds is a five star recruit from Brooklyn. Some media outlet picked him National Freshman of the Week. JUCO transfer-slasher-small forward Bashir Ahmed went for 19 points vs Butler. He's a three level(3s-mid-range-FT line) scorer from the Bronx. RS Frosg Guard Marcus Lovett returned from injury to score 10 off the bench.
St Johns has an All Rookie BIG THREE. Ponds,Ahmed and Lovett combine for 48PPG. All three are strong off the dribble. They fearlessly launch threes and try all sorts of acrobatic crazy shots with many falling in. Both Ponds and Lovett are lefties.
Mullin has some nice guard depth also. 6-6 Soph Malik Ellison(Never Nervous Pervis's son-Lousville) from New Jersey is back and much improved on the wing. He's playing big minutes-has developed a mid-range game-can rebound and defend. Italian import guard Federico Mussini averaged 11PPG last season. He's been injured and now comes off the bench,but he can make threes in profusion.
SJU shuffles in four BIGS. Kassoum Yakwe is back. Yakuba Sima just transferred out(to Oklahoma State). Yakwe blocks shots and rebounds.Thin 6-11 Tennessee transfer Tariq Owens is playing well lately and shooting with more confidence. Lone Senior Darien Williams is solid(6-8,235). He hardly played last season,but looked impressive in the Johnnies second come-from-behind Big East win at DePaul(down 17-5 to start-won 79-73 in Chicago).
Junior Amar Alebegovic(Italy) always seems to show up well against Xavier.6-9 Frosh Richard Freudenberg(Germany) pulls out and launches threes.
Two BE wins already for the Red Storm is impressive!! The Butler win showed poise and game closing acumen. SJU thudded back to earth Wednesday at sold-out Carnesseca losing badly to a mature smart fast 10th rated Creighton team 85-72. It was wire to wire Blue Jays. St Johns gave up a ton of fast break lay-ups to Mo Watson and crew. CU owned the paint. 7 footer RS Frosh Justin Patton poured in 25 points. SJU struggled with post defense and transition defense. Creighton slowed their dribble drives and contested their threes and kept them off the foul line.
HOW DOES XAVIER WIN THIS???
The home court advantage should be huge against a young St Johns team. TEAM 95 is 8-0 at Cintas and they've won 23 of 24 at home over the past two seasons.Holding serve at home is vital in the ultra competitive Big East(home teams are 9-4 so far in league games).
XU had a mid-week bye so St Johns has been the prime focus at practice. Xavier is playing well(5 game win streak). The defense has been fairly stingy.The 1-3-1 zone re-emerged as a weapon in the win at Georgetown. The Muskies won the physical battles against the Hoyas-made the FTs and closed out the win on the road.
Xavier is sharing the ball well on offense(70% assist to field goal ratio in the Big East). Edmond Sumner was huge at GT(28 points-6 assists-8 rebounds). His 14-17 performance at the FT line is one of the more productive foul shooting displays in modern XU history.
Trevon Bluiett is primed to return to shooting form after an off day at GT. St Johns does not match-up well against Xavier's BIG THREE defensively.
XU's post players should be able to get position also and do damage down low. Rashid Gaston is much stronger than any thing SJU can throw out there. Sean O'Mara has been solid off the bench in two BE games(16 points-7 boards in just 26 minutes). St Johns gets a little wild and crazy down low. X can counter with Tyrique Jones' extreme athleticism.
Hey,St Johns could get on a roll and shoot the lights out. Creighton controlled their drivers-owned the defensive board and ran well on SJU misses. The same mature approach should work for Xavier. 4 or 5 passes against the St Johns defense should net a great shot every time. Patience will lead to efficient possessions. Settling for long threes and contested early jumpers is not a winning formula. St Johns is feisty and sort of fearless so they probably will not fade away easily. It should be entertaining!! Xavier 84 St Johns 71.
WHAT LIES AHEAD??
It would be great for the Muskies to take a 3-0 Big East record out on the road next week. What a league!!! Xavier will play three straight against Top 25 opponents and possibly three Top 10s. It's Villanova Tuesday night in Philadelphia-7PM-Fox Sports 1. The Wildcats will not be #1 after their loss at Butler last Wednesday. Top 5 is still pretty good!! VU hosts Marquette Saturday night at Wells Fargo Arena downtown.
Villanova plays Xavier at the band box Pavilion on campus where they own a 45 game win streak dating back almost 4 years. XU has not come close in three BE trips to Villanova(3 blow-out losses). X did knock out #1 VU at Cintas last February though. Nova is still without Junior Guard Phil Booth(sore knee).
Saturday afternnon January 14th XU makes the annual pilgrimage to Hinkle Field House to play Butler. The Bulldogs may be Top 10 after their home win vs Villanova. Then it's back to Cintas on Martin Luther King Day afternoon-2PM against Creighton-another probable Top 10. Give me 2 out of 3 in that stretch!!
SATURDAY IS HALL OF FAME DAY:
Five new inductees to the Xavier Athletic Hall of Fame will be recognized on the court at halftime of the XU-St Johns game. Stanley Burrell represents mens basketball. He was a four year starter(2005-2008)-finished 13th on the all time scoring list(1612 points) and made himself into XU's stickiest defensive guard ever. Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips starred on XU's best women's basketball teams. They led the Lady Muskies to the 2010 NCAA Elite Eight and lost by a lay-up to Stanford. Baseball Pitcher Lou Witte(Class of 1999) posted a record 35 career wins. He came up through the local Midland amateur system.
Then there's me - Andy Mac. I wore the Selection Committee down after 33 years of service to the program for better or worse on TV and Radio-writing and blogging-hosting our Pregame segment at Duffs with Brad Redford and generally making a nuisance of myself. My thanks to Jay Skeldon for giving me this musketeermadness platform-to you whoever you are out there who may read my ramblings and to Xavier basketball for supplying ever changing story lines and an ever improving product. I see that Final Four just ahead and I plan to write about it!!!