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Pregame Shootaround: St. John's at Georgetown

Can Georgetown stay unbeaten in Big East play?

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports
Saturday, Georgetown hosts St. John's, a Big East foe who also has high expectations but middling results so far this year. The Red Storm face the possibility of a winless conference-opening road trip, while the Hoyas need to rack up another victory before leaving home. Who will prevail? Let's get to it.

The Big Picture. Like Oliver Purnell at DePaul and Kevin Willard at Seton Hall, Steve Lavin is in his critical fourth year as head coach of a Big East program. Each coach has had enough time, first to recruit talented players and second to turn that talent into production. Purnell and Willard are still struggling with step one, though Purnell's prize Billy Garrett looked good on Tuesday, and Willard has some prime recruits lined up for next year, should he last long enough to coach them.

As he did at UCLA, Lavin has thrived on the recruiting trail in his three years at St. John's, landing seven top-100 high school recruits and several more talented transfers, particularly from junior college. Some of these have been speculative fliers who didn't qualify academically at first or eventually transferred elsewhere. Still, those are the recruits Lavin chose, and he's expected eventually turn that talent into wins.

The victories have been more elusive than the recruits. After a feel-good first season in which Lavin rode veteran talent from the Norm Roberts Era to an NCAA Tournament berth, St. John's has spent Lavin's second and third seasons rebuilding with talented but inexperienced recruits. (It should be noted that Lavin missed much of his second season while seeking treatment for cancer.) After drawing near .500 last season in conference play last year, returning his top five scorers from last season, and adding talented newcomers, St. John's justifiably had its eyes on a return to the tournament this year.

That goal is still within reach, though the Red Storm will have to earn it in conference play. St. John's dropped the season opener to Wisconsin, and has lost against its only other KenPom top-100 foes (Syracuse, Penn State, and, in the Big East opener, Xavier). The nine non-conference wins, particularly an 11-pointer over Georgia Tech, are nice enough, but the Red Storm will need to get rolling in conference play to be dancing in March.

Roster rundown.

Back court. For the third straight year, much of the ball-handling and most of the shooting in the St. John's back court is being soaked up by D'Angelo Harrison (19.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.8 apg), a high-volume, moderate-efficiency scorer. Harrison, like Hoya Markel Starks, made the preseason All-Big East team, though Harrison's selection is in part an indication of the intoxicating power of raw scoring numbers, as his shooting percentages and other numbers are less impressive. Flanking him in the back court is Phil Greene IV (8.9 ppg, 1.5 apg), who is a solid defender and a decent scorer. Lavin has tinkered with the starting lineup as the season has gone on, so the speedy, long freshman Rysheed Jordan (7.4 ppg, 2.6 apg) figures to come off the pine, as will back-up distributor Jamal Branch (4.1 ppg, 1.8 apg).

Front court. The St. John's front court  once again features an array of long-limbed athletes. Foremost is sophomore forward Jakarr Sampson (12.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.2 blk pg) a high-level athlete who is beginning to round out the rest of his game. Sampson will slide between the forward spots, but often plays the three. At the four generally is senior Orlando Sanchez (7.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg), a juco transfer who sat out last year with eligibility issues.  Sophomore big man Chris Obekpa (3.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.4 blk pg) remains a shot-blocking machine, but has seen his minutes fluctuate as his offensive game has failed to progress. Junior wing Sir'Dominic Pointer (6.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.4 apg) likely won't start but will play most of the game, contributing rangy defense and good passing.

St. John's basketball on twitter. The Red Storm want to go dancing and are going to be itching for marquee wins, including Saturday.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Latest Bracketology: St. John&#39;s not in field of 68, not among First Four Out nor Next Four Out: <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Kieran Darcy (@KieranDarcy) <a href="">January 2, 2014</a></blockquote>
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When St. John's has the ball.
  • Red Storm to watch: Jakarr Sampson. Harrison is the headline-maker, creating impressive raw numbers on the strength of high volume. But Sampson is a threat to finish at the rim and on the offensive glass, where he will have an advantage in athleticism and, when St. John's goes big, size over the Georgetown front line.
  • Hoya to watch: Joshua Smith. Smith's time has dwindled of late as his defense and rebounding have continued to suffer. Smith has failed to grab more than two rebounds in the past four games, and has been burned on defense, embarrassingly so against DePaul, when a Blue Demon threw an inbound pass to himself off of Smith's ample backside. With Moses Ayegba showing promise as a mobile, athletic defender and Nate Lubick and Mikael Hopkins controlling the boards, Smith may find himself in a precarious position.
  • Number to watch: shots attempted. This number matters for two reasons. First, St. John's will try to run. Their just-average pace is in fact a tale of two ends of the floor: the Red Storm's defense slows opponents down, while its offense runs the floor, using possessions at the fastest mark in the conference. The Red Storm are comfortable getting out in transition and taking shots early in the shot clock. Second, and perhaps more importantly, St. John's probably won't shoot a high percentage but may shoot enough to overcome all those misses. The Red Storm protect the ball at one of the best 20 rates in the country, meaning the Hoyas may not force many turnovers Saturday. Add in Georgetown's struggle to protect the defensive glass, and St. John's may get a ton more shots than Georgetown.
  • Feeling delusional because...Georgetown should be able to shrink the court in the half court. St. John's takes very few three-pointers, aside from Harrison, who is a chucker from everywhere on the floor. And things may get worse for the Red Storm closer to the basket, where Georgetown holds opponents to just 43.5 percent shooting. Under Lavin, the Red Storm have been prone to hoisting one long two-point jumper after another, and Georgetown's defense is geared to encourage those impatient heaves.
  • Feeling cynical because...Harrison has struggled throughout his career against Georgetown, and is bound to break out of a slump eventually; the Red Storm may make things excruciating for the Hoyas by not turning the ball over and crashing the offensive glass; and there's always foul trouble.

When Georgetown has the ball.

  • Hoya to watch: D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera. The sophomore guard put together a respectable point total against DePaul, but his shot was off. Look for a bounce-back game from DSR Saturday, who figures to enjoy several open looks against a St. John's defense that permits a high volume of opposing three-point attempts.
  • Red Storm to watch: Chris Obekpa. Now a sophomore, Obekpa remains the nation's best shot-blocker. He is protecting the rim and also the block-rate he earned last year. Obekpa swats 4.4 shots per year, and figures to make for an interesting match for Smith Saturday afternoon.
  • Number to watch: two-point field goals. Georgetown has made 56.4 percent of two-point field goals, the sixth-best mark in the country. For its part, St. John's stable of long-armed athletes have made things uncomfortable inside, holding opponents to just shy of 43 percent from two. In particular, Obekpa, Sampson, Sanchez, and Pointer all average a block or better per game, making the Red Storm the best shot-blocking team in the country. If the Hoyas can shake free for a few clean looks inside against the Red Storm, things will go their way offensively.
  • Feeling delusional because...Starks and Smith-Rivera should be able to get theirs, if their outside shots are falling, and Smith should have some opportunities on the offensive glass, which the Red Storm often leave open when selling out for blocks. Starks particularly comes to mind, given his preseason quote, "I haven’t received a lot of the other point guard accolades that I think I should have. I’m ready to check some names off this year. People need to know who I am." Starks is never one to shy from a juicy quote, and Harrison is more volume than efficiency, but Saturday certainly is a chance to check one name.
  • Feeling cynical because...Points might be hard to come by otherwise. The Red Storm don't give up much inside and don't foul much, meaning two- and one-pointers will be precious commodities.

Conclusion. One game into Big East play, questions about for Georgetown. Can the Hoyas score consistently enough to keep pace? Is Josh Smith a dominating post presence or a slow, immobile liability? Can the Hoyas stay out of foul trouble and on the boards long enough to assemble a sound defense? The next four games, against a talented St. John's team at home and then on a tricky three-game road trip, will begin to answer those questions. Saturday, expect Georgetown to be motivated by an underwhelming conference opener and by the necessity of protecting home court.