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December 22, 2010
St. John's
Back From the Brink?

by Asher Fusco

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NEW YORK -- The Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden figured to answer a lot of questions surrounding St. John's and Northwestern:

--Is Steve Lavin's first St. John's squad the team chosen to finish sixth in the Big East preseason poll or the sorry bunch that lost at Fordham?
--Is Northwestern primed to build on an 8-0 start to finish .500-plus in the Big Ten and make its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance?

Well, the Wildcats reaffirmed the fact that they have a special scorer in John Shurna, a top-of-the-line athlete in Drew Crawford, a solid point guard in Michael Thompson, and...uh, not much else.

And we saw once again that St. John's is stocked with athletic and dynamic offensive players such as D.J. Kennedy and Dwight Hardy, and that Lavin's team is long enough to hold its own on defense (although its zone did yield 23 points in seven minutes). That being said, for better or worse this team doesn't look too much different than last year's St. John's squad.

In short, we didn't learn much as much as we might have hoped from the Red Storm's 85-69, 67-possession win over NU.

First things first: Fordham notwithstanding, St. John's is good. The Red Storm has a capable player at every position and several solid reserves, especially in the backcourt. Lavin's bunch did come away a 16-point winner on the heels of a tidy 80-percent shooting performance in the second half, but that's what good teams should be expected to do: defeat average, size-challenged teams in quasi-home environments in games that stay close until the final few minutes.

Thing is, St. John's was good last year. The team finished 17-16 and No. 67 in Ken Pomeroy's overall rankings. None of which is good enough in the Big East, of course. The Red Storm finished 6-12 in conference play and Norm Roberts was shown the exit.

This season the Johnnies do appear to have ratcheted up their play since that two-game slide against St. Bonaventure and Fordham. The trio of Kennedy, Hardy and tournament MVP Justin Brownlee seems like an above-average core. St. John's did a great job on offense against Northwestern's zone, scoring 1.27 points per trip by not only penetrating but also by making threes when opportunities arose.

Brownlee played well in transition and used some solid offensive rebounding to contribute 21 points, while two of St. John's other efficient performers also used an above-average numbers of possessions. Guards Hardy and Dwayne Polee II each used at least 23 percent of the team's shots and created better than 1.22 points per possession. Throw in a monstrous nine-rebound, 25-minute effort by Justin Burrell and Lavin had reason to be pleased.

"We made some progress, and it really was a result of my poor management of the Fordham game that led us to examine some things, and helped our kids be more successful in this tournament," Lavin said. "We would've loved to have beat St. Bonaventure and Fordham, but we probably have arrived at a better place in getting ready for the league."

St. John's looked both great and atrocious on defense. The team came out in a zone, which allowed Shurna and Crawford to score almost at will as the Wildcats raced to a 23-13 lead in the first seven minutes. Lavin called a timeout at that point and moved his team into man-to-man, even throwing some three-quarter- and full-court presses in for good measure. Northwestern's scoring nearly came to a halt against the Johnnies' head-up defense, as Shurna was the only one who could find the basket in the second half.

"The biggest (goal) was to crawl in defensively with our ball pressure," Lavin said. "To chase shooters off the three-point line and force them to put it on the deck."

Despite all the good -- and flashes of great -- that St. John's showed on Tuesday, the Big East season most likely will be a different beast than a virtual home game against a mid-level Big Ten team. It's safe to say Lavin's team is somewhere between that sixth-place prediction and two ugly losses at the hands of the Atlantic 10's lower tier. The coach-turned-analyst-turned-coach won't be judged much on this season. Aside from Polee, these players are all holdovers from the Roberts era and St. John's has a long way to go to reach the top two or three in the Big East. Good, great or otherwise, the Steve Lavin Comes to Queens book is a long way from being written.

As for Northwestern, Andy Glockner of SI.com tweeted at halftime of Tuesday's game that the team "is going to have a really hard time going 10-8 in the Big Ten." The Wildcats are currently projected by Pomeroy to finish 8-10 in conference play, so a .500-or-better finish isn't out of the question, but NU has some gaping holes that haven't shown up against the wretched 308th-ranked schedule they've played thus far (fourth-worst among high-major teams).

Simply put, the Wildcats are going to look extremely small against, say, Ohio State, when Dallas Lauderdale is bodying up Luka Mirkovic and Jared Sullinger is boxing out Drew Crawford. Bill Carmody's preferred lineup of one big around four perimeter-based players will create mismatches -- on both ends. It's tough to imagine the advantage gained by having Crawford's shooting touch will outweigh -- literally and figuratively -- the physicality the Wildcats will give up against conference foes like the Buckeyes, Michigan State or Minnesota.

Shurna's unbelievable scoring ability (he scored 41 percent of the team's points while using 28 percent of its shots) figures to win Northwestern a game or three in conference play, but it might not be enough to overcome the size and toughness deficit the Wildcats will face. It would have been nice for Northwestern to see more than one top-notch opponent before launching into Big Ten play, but alas, the Wildcats are set for just one more tune-up: a home game against Mount St. Mary's.

Davidson 76, St. Francis (NY) 69 (70 possessions)
A surprisingly strong showing on the boards wasn't enough to push St. Francis (NY) past Davidson in Tuesday's consolation game. The tiny Terriers (ranked 324th in effective height at KenPom.com) grabbed 41 percent of their own missed shots against the Wildcats (56th in effective height), but converted twos at a 41 percent clip and finished just 3-for-15 from three-point range.

Despite basically going it alone on the glass against Akeem Johnson and Travis Nichols, Davidson big man Jake Cohen scored a team-high 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting and grabbed 15 percent of available offensive rebounds. Forward Clint Mann and guard JP Kuhlman contributed 15 and 17, respectively, for the Wildcats, who came away from the Holiday Festival at 1-1 but with a five-point near-miss against St. John's under their belts.

Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City.

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