Pregame Party: St. John's v. Georgetown

Andy Lyons

Can the Hoyas extend their winning streak to four by finishing sweep of Red Storm?

Your Georgetown Hoyas seek their fourth straight win Saturday in a Gray Out against longtime rival St. John's. The good guys dispatched the Johnnies just three weeks ago, notching their first win in conference by running past the Red Storm to a sixteen-point rout that wasn't even that close. Can the Hoyas repeat against a young St. John's team that's riding a winning streak of its own? Let's get to it.

It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. The last meeting between Georgetown and St. John's seems to have been a catalyst for both teams. As we all know, our beloved Hoyas have won five of six, including that victory over the Red Storm. But St. John's has been just as hot, winning five straight after the loss to Georgetown. The Johnnies' streak has been aided by a favorable schedule, and the results haven't always been impressive, such as squeaking out a four-point home win over Seton Hall or needing overtime at home to dispatch DePaul two days ago. As a result, St. John's is 96th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, a mere three spots higher than it was entering the Georgetown game.

But wins are wins, particularly for a young team. And they weren't all shaky: the road victories at Rutgers and DePaul were convincing, while the home win over Notre Dame was impressive. Those victories have added up to a 6-3 conference record, placing the Red Storm in third place in the conference entering Saturday's rematch. Just as importantly, the Red Storm's collection of long-limbed if youthful athletes seems to be building an identity based on a frenetic defense and open-floor offense.

So it remains to be seen whether St. John's is a narrative-based mediocrity that has feasted on the conference cellar dwellers, or is putting its successive highly rated recruiting classes to good use. Saturday will be a good test of those competing theories.

Red Storm to Know. The Red Storm should be familiar to Hoyas fans at this point, given that this is the teams' fourth meeting in two years. (Actually, sixth in three, but head coach Steve Lavin is about the lone holdover from two years ago.) The show largely is still run by sophomore D'Angelo Harrison (19.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.7 stl pg, 42.9 FG%), a high-volume combo guard that is dangerous when he heats up. The other guard slot increasingly is a platoon between Phil Greene IV (8.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.7 apg, 37.1 FG%) and Jamal Branch (9.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2.4 apg, 49.3 FG%), the latter becoming eligible just nine games ago, after arriving by transfer. Both are capable passers, though Greene protects the ball a bit better and Branch is a more natural scorer.

Up front, freshman Jakarr Sampson (14.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.2 blk pg) has emerged as the team's second option, relying almost entirely on length and athletic ability to cobble together an effective offensive game. Sampson is a tweener playing power forward, as the small forward minutes have been split between Sir'Dominic Pointer (6.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.4 stl pg) and Amir Garrett (6.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg). Neither is a big danger to light it up offensively, though both are high-energy athletes who can disrupt the proceedings on defense. Speaking of disruptive, center Chris Obekpa (3.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.6 blk pg) is one of the best few shot-blockers in the country despite being just a freshman.

When St. John's Has the Ball.

  • Red Storm's strength: pushing the pace. Despite its solid record, the Red Storm come into Saturday's game with just the twelfth-best offense in the Big East, adjusting for pace and competition. St. John's is particularly weak at shooting, as explained a bit more within. The one area in which the Johnnies can generate points is the open floor, which they get to by playing at the second-fastest pace in the Big East.
  • Georgetown's strength: defensive rebounding. Georgetown quietly has rebounded extremely well over the past several games, gathering nearly 71 percent of opponents' misses, tops in the Big East in that category. The Hoyas also were able to hold the Red Storm at bay in MSG, yielding just six offensive rebounds on forty-three misses. For its part, St. John's ranks near the bottom of the conference in offensive rebounding, collecting just 29.2 percent of second chances.
  • Three takeaways from the first game:
    • D'Angelo Harrison is the great unknown. The Red Storm star guard has scored in double figures in every game this year save two, with the first Hoya game being one of the exceptions. Harrison went just 3-of-12 for 7 points in that game, barely improving on a 1-of-12, 5-point performance in last year's home loss to Georgetown. But in addition to averaging nearly 20 points per game this year, Harrison blew up in last season's trip to the Phone Booth, canning 5 threes en route to a 24-point game. Which D'Angelo will show up Saturday?
    • Make St. John's prove it can shoot. Georgetown packed the paint three weeks ago, and the Red Storm couldn't stretch the Hoya defense. The Johnnies made just 3 of 16 three-point attempts, and even that number was inflated by a pair of late made triples. While that game was exceptionally bad, St. John's hasn't been good from distance this year, making just 28.7 of its three-point attempts in conference play.
    • Get back in transition. To get easy baskets, St. John's will try to run, particularly off of Hoya turnovers. The Red Storm will get a few uncontested breaks that way, but the Hoyas must limit those numbers to only a few, and make St. John's execute in the half court.

When Georgetown Has the Ball.

  • Georgetown's strength: moving the ball, and moving without the ball. Georgetown's mediocre offense ranks first in the conference and fourteenth in the country in percentage of baskets that are assisted. Georgetown's slow pace and offensive style mean that Nate Lubick, at just 2.7 assists, actually leads the team, though Markel Starks (just one assist behind) and Otto Porter (2.5) also hand out plenty of helpers. St. John's has the athletes and the depth to play solid defense, where they rank just behind the Hoyas in efficiency in conference play, but still are prone to over-rotation and gambling for steals and dunks. The Hoyas' recently crisp passing, combined with off-the-ball movement, should free up open shots.
  • Red Storm's strength: protecting the paint. An otherwise pretty casual day at MSG was interrupted occasionally by St. John's monster freshman big Chris Obekpa, who blocked six Hoya shots and generally made life difficult in the paint. Obekpa's shot-blocking skills free up the rest of the Red Storm to guard more aggressively, and their athleticism allows them to switch on screens to neutralize opponents' penetration. In total, the Johnnies allow opponents to shoot just 43 percent from inside the arc in conference play, a mark that's better even than your Hoyas.
  • Three takeaways from the first game:
    • Georgetown can run. Georgetown got after it in the first half in MSG, scoring 36 points before intermission. While the Hoyas enjoyed some hot hands early, they also benefited from getting in the open court. For the game, the Hoyas scored 15 points on the fast break, and many more in transition situations in which the Red Storm weren't permitted time to match up. Since then, Georgetown hasn't been committed to pushing the pace, instead taking transition opportunities when they arise but also playing several slow-down slug-fests. Flooring it on Saturday should generate some easy baskets.
    • Lineups, lineups, lineups. The first St. John's game was Georgetown's first without Greg Whittington, so Hoya fans were treated to some unexpected lineups that included D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Moses Ayegba, and Aaron Bowen. We should see all three to some degree again Saturday. DSR is a confident ball-handler and, occasionally, an effective scorer. Ayegba is a big body that can neutralize Obekpa's rebounding, if not his shot-blocking, and Bowen's athleticism may come in handy against the gaggle of Pointer, Sampson, and Garrett.
    • Protect the ball. The Red Storm's defense has improved of late, in part by contesting shots better and in part by forcing more turnovers. Those turnovers in turn fuel the St. John's offense by getting the ball in the open court. Georgetown has had issues protecting the ball, but must do a better job of it Saturday to prevent easy St. John's baskets.

Prediction. This is a hard game to read. Considering just the way the two teams are playing (including competition), the location of the game, and the shipment of some fresh Casual headbands, I would confidently pick the Hoyas, though not by the margin of the first game. But rematches can be weird. Each of the last two years, the Hoyas and Red Storm have met twice, with the loser of the first meeting making a stronger showing in the second. In 2011, Georgetown avenged a loss at MSG with a Thundersnow-laden blowout in D.C.; last year, St. John's got swept but showed plenty of fight in the second game before losing. This year, the blowout, and its effect on St. John's (read the quotes here), suggest that the Red Storm might have a bit of a chip on their shoulder Saturday. I think they will, but that it won't be enough to beat your Hoyas. Georgetown 60, St. John's 56.

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