Georgetown starts a difficult six-game closing stretch Sunday when it travels to Madison Square Garden to take on hated rival St. John's. Both teams still dream of dancing, but have plenty of work left to do.
It's been so long since last we met. I know it will only have been 6 weeks and 1 day since Georgetown and St. John's have played, but to me it feels like 9 weeks and 5 days. Since the Hoyas pounded the Johnnies in DC, Georgetown has lost Josh Smith, first indefinitely and then for the season, and slogged through several games without Jabril Trawick. Trawick has returned, as have the Hoyas' winning ways.
The Red Storm have endured a see-saw of their own, dropping three more games after losing to the Hoyas to plummet to 0-5 in the conference. Things got so bad that head coach Steve Lavin, now in his fourth season at St. John's but still struggling to gain momentum, had to deny anonymous reports about friction between him and the university. But the Red Storm found their groove thanks to smaller, more agile lineups, and have rattled off six wins in their past seven Big East game, pulling them even with Georgetown at .500. As it stands, Georgetown likely is barely in the tournament, St. John's barely out. But bracketology projections are hardly scientific and could change quickly on Sunday.
Roster rundown. Back court. The Red Storm are familiar. The ball often is in the hands of D'Angelo Harrison (18 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 36.9 3FG%), who puts up big numbers because he shoots a lot and not because he shoots particularly accurately (just 39 FG%). Flanking him in the back court for the third straight season is Phil Greene IV (7.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg), who is a solid defender and a decent scorer. The speedy, long freshman Rysheed Jordan (8.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.1 stl pg) also has worked his way into the starting lineup, giving the Red Storm a disruptive defender and able distributor. Junior wing Sir'Dominic Pointer (6.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2 apg, 1.4 stl pg, 1.2 blk pg) likely won't start but will play most of the game, contributing rangy defense and good passing.
Front court. The shift to a three-guard offense predictably has changed the alignments down low. The Red Storm's best front court option is sophomore Jakarr Sampson (12.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 0.9 blk pg) a high-level athlete who is beginning to round out the rest of his game. Sampson is a tweener who has played more power forward of late. The center has been a platoon between senior Orlando Sanchez (7 ppg, 5 rpg), a big-bodied juco transfer who sat out last year with eligibility issues and Chris Obekpa (4.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.2 blk pg). Sanchez is a bit more polished offensively, while Obekpa is a shot-blocking machine.
When St. John's has the ball.
- Red Storm to watch: Harrison. Harrison's poor shooting percentages turn downright abysmal against Georgetown. He's shot just 19 percent from the field and just 16 percent from three in 5 career games against the Hoyas. And it's been worse of late: he's made just 1 of his last 25 field-goal attempts against the Hoyas and has missed 18 consecutive three-point attempts versus Georgetown. At some point that fever is going to break, and a return to even average numbers for Harrison could spell pain for Georgetown.
- Hoya to watch: Aaron Bowen. JT3 has juggled lineups and formations all year, switching from zone to man-to-man and back again, going big and small, in search of functional lineups with available personnel. One recent lineup features Bowen at the de facto power foward, flanked inside by Nate Lubick (or, less frequently, Mikael Hopkins) and at small forward by Trawick. This arrangement gets a bit more spacing and offensive punch, but may lack size to defend and rebound adequately. Will Bowen be able to keep Sampson off the offensive glass?
- Number to watch: transition points. St. John's likes to push the tempo, playing at the second-fastest pace in the conference. The Red Storm particularly like to get out in transition, and need to do so to score. They are a below-average shooting team from three and from two, and, while they shoot free throws well, they get to the line at the lowest rate in the conference. In other words, points need to come easily, or they might not come at all.
- Feeling delusional because...The book on St. John's the last three years has been pretty simple. Pack in the defense, encourage the Red Storm's self-destructive proclivity for long two-pointers, wash, rise, repeat. While JT3 has employed a variety of defensive looks over the years, the overriding theme has been patient denial of clean looks with the knowledge that opponents' impatience or a dwindling shot clock will eventually force a bad shot. Even in this otherwise middling year, the Hoyas have limited their Big East opponents to an effective field-goal percentage of just 46 percent, the best mark in the conference. While Georgetown struggles with fouls and defensive rebounding, St. John's is the worst in the conference at getting to the line and doesn't exactly pound the offensive glass. The Red Storm's weaknesses play right into Georgetown's strengths, making baskets few and far between.
- Feeling cynical because...Georgetown has just had it too easy against the Red Storm. Since the Johnnies surprised the Hoyas in MSG in Lavin's first season, Georgetown has won the last six games in this series, each by double digits. St. John's hasn't scored more than 61 points during that streak, and hasn't shot better than 40.4% from the field. While this could equally lead to the conclusion that the Hoyas are going to rout the Red Storm again, a reversal--even a flukish one--is inevitable at some point.
When Georgetown has the ball.
- Hoya to watch: Markel Starks. The senior guard is running himself (and being run by non-existent back-court depth) into the ground. He's played 36 or more minutes in every conference game this season, shouldering the primary burden as a distributor and sharing the scoring load with D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera. He also continues to get after it on defense and in the open floor. Can Starks continue to take the team on his back as his legs get wearier?
- Red Storm to watch: Jordan. Let's dispense with the obvious: the first St. John's defender in everyone's mind is Obekpa, perhaps the nation's best shot-blocker. Still,Jordan may be as influential in the Red Storm's defense Sunday, given that he's a guard and so may defend one or both of Georgetown's leading scorers, Starks and Smith-Rivera. Jordan is a ball hawk who fouled out of the first Georgetown game but has notched at least a steal in each of the past six games. As he goes, so may go the St. John's defense.
- Number to watch: turnovers. As detailed here, one reason Georgetown has been able to piece together four straight wins is the Hoyas' new-found ability to protect the ball. For the season, Georgetown has turned the ball over on 18.6 percent of possessions, a number that has plummeted to 10.1 percent during this streak. The Red Storm have been racking up turnovers in conference play, leading the Big East by forcing miscues on more than 20 percent of possessions. Three different Johnnies average a steal or better per game, while the team as a whole swipes 7 steals. To sustain its fragile offensive competence, Georgetown needs to protect the ball on Sunday.
- Feeling delusional because...Aside from those scary turnover numbers, St. John's defense hasn't been that overwhelming. The Johnnies have been a disaster on the defensive glass, foul too much, have poor communication and sloppy rotations, and, with the smaller lineups, have seen their once-impenetrable interior defense regress to just pretty good.
- Feeling cynical because...Obekpa's shot-blocking plus active hands from the rest of the St. John's defense could equal a frustrating day for Georgetown.
Conclusion. This is a huge game. As with all games against St. John's, this one should be heated. An already storied rivalry has become downright testy over the past couple of years as Georgetown has beaten St. John's time and again and, thanks to Trawick, has informed the Red Storm of said beatings. Things got both physical and verbal at the end of January's blowout, meaning St. John's will be eager for some revenge at their place. Now, both teams are hot and are seeking to maintain momentum to make up for a pile of early conference losses. Also, Sunday's match-up has obvious post-season ramifications for both teams. Georgetown needs at least split its last six games to have a chance to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. None of those games are gimmes, and five of the six opponents already have beaten the Hoyas this year. The Red Storm are the exception. St. John's is in similarly dire circumstances, needing every win to keep hope alive for March. Good luck waiting the next three days to see who gets that much-needed victory.