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Pregame Party: Georgetown v. St. John's

Hoyas again seek first Big East win at MSG as ThunderTrain rolls into town.


Your fighting Georgetown Hoyas try to right the ship (or perhaps the train) tomorrow as they head to the World's Most Famous Arena to take on the St. John's Red Storm. For Georgetown, the task is two-fold. Most basic is the Hoyas' need to win a conference game. But there's also the sticky issue in finding an offensive rhythm after two Big East games bereft of it. Can they accomplish either in MSG?

It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. After many years in the basketball, if not geographical, wilderness, St. John's surged back into the limelight two years ago, first with the hiring of head coach Steve Lavin, then with the Red Storm's first tournament appearance in nine years. Forget that the post-season qualification could be chalked up at least as much to a senior-heavy squad as to anything Lavin did, St. John's basketball was back, and Lavin soon lined up the recruits to prove it.

But then things got complicated. Lavin was diagnosed with cancer, and sought treatment for it, taking him off the bench for last season. What's worse, all those seniors left, and not all those commitments qualified or stuck around. A painfully thin and small Red Storm crew fell to 6-12 in conference play, and even that felt like an overachievement.

This season, with a year of seasoning on last year's freshmen, and a few more recruits to add depth, offered a bit more promise than last. Thus far, the results have been mixed. Incoming junior college power forward Orlando Sanchez never got NCAA clearance, while last year's post, God'sGift Achiuwa, took a red shirt, leaving the front court scarcely deeper than last season. The Red Storm finished non-conference play a ho-hum 8-4, with a lone top-100 win (over No. 96 Detroit, by three, at home) offsetting several losses, one respectable (Baylor), others less so (UNC-Asheville at home). Opening conference play, a very impressive win at Cincinnati has been balanced by a pair of losses, at Villanova in overtime and at home to Rutgers.

Red Storm to Know. You'd be forgiven for thinking that eventual first-round draft pick Moe Harkless was St. John's leading scorer last year, but it actually was returning guard D'Angelo Harrison (21.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.9 stl pg) who has earned that role again this year, on much improved shooting. Harrison is a threat to score from just about everywhere, whether off the bounce or from long range, though he's far less accurate from deep. Flanking him in the back-court is classmate Phil Greene IV (9.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.1 apg), who, like the artist formerly known as Otto Porter, seems to have acquired a generational suffix in the off-season. Greene doesn't pack the same scoring punch as Harrison but passes well and, in a lineup beset by youth and injuries at the guard position, that's enough.

At the forward slots, St. John's has a bit more depth and plenty of athleticism. The four spot is filled by Jakarr Sampson (13.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.1 stl pg, 1.5 blk pg), a high-level athlete that already is the team's second-leading scorer and leading rebounder. Sampson was supposed to be a freshman last year but, after some academic thorns, is one this year instead. The small forward spot remains a platoon between Amir Garrett (6.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Sir'Dominic Pointer (5.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.3 apg).

Down low is a force: freshman Chris Obekpa (4.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 5.1 blk pg) is a shot-blocking machine rivaled only by Kansas's Jeff Withey. From there, the rotation drops off considerably. Texas A&M transfer Jamal Branch (5.0 ppg, 2.7 apg) is newly eligible and potentially a good point guard, but doesn't shore up the middle, where the Red Storm are still thin.

When St. John's Has the Ball.

  • Red Storm's strength: protecting the ball. St. John's sports a mediocre offense (but one, it should be noted, that recently has been no worse than Georgetown's). The Red Storm don't shoot well or often from deep, and the same goes for free throws. They also don't assist on many baskets, leaving them largely at the mercy of self-created opportunities within the three-point arc. Those shots tend to be fine when in transition, less so in the half-court, so it's fortunate that the Red Storm at least don't give the ball away too often, turning the ball over at a rate only bested in the Big East by Pitt.
  • Hoyas' strength: packing the paint. The same strategy that should have worked-but failed-against Pitt should prove more successful against a less able St. John's squad. The Red Storm shoot just 32 percent from three, and no regular has shot better than 35 percent from deep. The Red Storm also take very few attempts from deep, taking the lowest percentage of three pointers in the conference and a bottom-six mark nationally.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Transition defense. Georgetown was exposed on Tuesday as woefully lacking in transition defense. Whether it was a structured fast break or merciless cherry-picking by a single Panther, Pitt burned the Hoyas time after time. With plenty of athletes and a less reliable half-court offense, St. John's runs a bit more than Pitt, and Georgetown will have to be all the more vigilant to stop easy transition points.
    • Jabril Trawick. Don't be surprised if Trawick sees plenty of run on Saturday. While either Nate Lubick or Mikael Hopkins should be able to contain Obekpa down low, neither may be able to stay with Sampson, an elite athlete who is as much a small forward as a four. The task of guarding Sampson may fall to Otto Porter (or even Greg Whittington), creating a back-court opening for Trawick, who may then have to guard Harrison.
    • Zone. Or, the Hoyas may try to limit Sampson and Harrison by zone, a look that increasingly has become Georgetown's base formation. If the Hoyas do so, they'll have to watch out for Harrison who, although he shoots under 35 percent from three, makes nearly 2½ of them, and so bears marking.

When Georgetown Has the Ball.

  • Hoyas' strength: ennui. It's hard to pinpoint a "strength" after consecutive games under 50. Let's just leave this one be until the Hoyas eclipse that hallowed point total.
  • Red Storm's strength: packing the paint. Thanks to Obekpa and Sampson, St. John's has a fairly effective interior defense (except for rebounding), allowing opponents to make just 42 percent of two-pointers while racking up blocked shots at the nation's third-highest rate. Remarkably, they pull off this feat without fouling much, ranking third in the Big East in that category.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Offensive rebounding. It's the movable object versus the resistible force: the Hoyas rank 292nd nationally in grabbing their own misses, while the Red Storm rank 289th nationally in preventing second chances. In last season's match-ups, Greg Whittington was particularly successful on the offensive boards. Given its offensive struggles of late, Georgetown could use a couple extra possessions.
    • Three-point shooting. Georgetown has been woefully inaccurate from beyond the arc, combining to shoot just 7 of 27 from three against Marquette and Pitt. The Hoyas may not be the sharp-shooting bunch of years gone by, but that number should tick upward at some point.
    • Pace. As argued persuasively here, one way Georgetown might be able to see some offensive uptick is by pushing the pace. But, as noted in the article, there's a difference between acknowledging the virtues of running and actually committing to doing so. A few pretty basic structural issues negate some transition opportunities each game. When grabbing a rebound, a Hoya guard often retrieves the ball from behind a rebounder rather than catching an outlet pass heading up the court, thereby slowing down the offense by a second or two, a fatal difference when it comes to scoring in transition. Once in transition, the ball-handler too often comes down one wing rather than moving the ball to the middle of the court, then finds a reversal to a teammate on the far wing impossible. And finally, while Georgetown usually takes advantage of true fast break opportunities, the Hoyas often don't capitalize on less obvious transition opportunities, where most or all of the defense is back but not yet set up. Running may cure offensive ills, but not if it remains a mantra rather than a plan.

Prediction. This could be another rock fight in a season already littered with them. In two of its three conference games, neither St. John's nor its opponent have cleared 60 points. Georgetown's aversion to points also has been well-documented. And even last year, when the Hoyas were easily the superior team, the teams played surprisingly close games in which Georgetown only pulled away late. The Hoyas should arrive in New York a desperate bunch, and, as we saw from Pitt Tuesday night, that can count for something. Georgetown 55, St. John's 51.