9:00 PM EST, FOX Sports 1 – Line: Villanova -4
Classic Big East rivals clash tonight in Madison Square Garden as the previously unbeaten Villanova Wildcats travel to the Big Apple to battle the reeling St. John’s Red Storm. Heading into Saturday’s matchup at Seton Hall, Villanova (13-1, 1-1 in Big East) was on the verge of going 14-0 for the first time in school history, but unfortunately fate would have different designs for the Wildcats, who sustained their first loss of the campaign in a 66-61 defeat. Trailing 31-27 at Halftime, Jay Wright’s charges rallied back in the second half to force the contest into Overtime, where they simply ran out of gas against the surprising Pirates. The visitors exhibited some truly dreadful shooting that night, netting a miserable 31.0% of their attempts, including only 5-of-24 from beyond the arc (20.8%). That embargo on net even extended to the charity stripe, where they missed fifteen free-throws, despite attempting nine more than their opponent. All in all, the ‘Cats had the look of a team that was very flat in their second league game of the campaign, as they continued to commit a rash of turnovers to boot (15) to a mere ten assists. However, it was their relentless pressure on the opposite end of the court that kept them within striking distance; Villanova relegated Seton Hall to 35.5% shooting from the field, including a scant 2-of-15 from three (13.3%), and outrebounding them 47-38. The visitors really took it to the Pirates on the glass, particularly on the offensive end, securing nineteen offensive rebounds leading to a number of easy, second-chance opportunities at the rim. Junior big man Daniel Ochefu was a man among boys in the losing effort, scoring nineteen points on 7-of-9 shooting (77.8%) to go along with a ridiculous 24 rebounds, eight of which were of the offensive variety. To put things into proper perspective, Ochefu had more rebounds than the entire Seton Hall starting five alone. However, while owning the glass, they struggled as a whole in defending their opponent’s Backcourt, particularly the likes of Sterling Gibbs and Khadeen Carrington who together accounted for 37 points on 12-of-29 shooting from the field (41.4%), and 12-of-14 from the free-throw line (85.6%). St. John’s features a similar guard-heavy lineup, which could give the Wildcats similar problems tonight, as ‘Nova looks to avoid losing back-to-back games for the first time in over a year.
It’s a bit ironic that Wright’s team has struggled with smaller, quicker teams this season given the fact that he has enjoyed some of his greatest success at Villanova with exactly that type of roster. With that said, he has done a good job of recruiting size and length, as the Wildcats are perfectly adept at smothering their opponents inside the three-point arc, where they contend everything. On the season, they have allowed 59.4 points (40th Nationally) on 39.8% shooting (82nd Nationally), including 44.5% shooting from within the three-point arc (106th Nationally) and 28.6% shooting from beyond it (34th Nationally). Furthermore, they’ve forced 16.1 turnovers (29th Nationally), 8.8 of which are steals (24th Nationally), while largely keeping the opposition off of the free-throw line (16.6 attempts/game). The aforementioned Ochefu has grown beyond his role as an enforcer, developing an offensive repertoire that has improved with each passing game. In this, his third season, the 6-11 Center has averaged 10.1 points on 65.5% shooting from the field, along with 8.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.6 blocks, all the while sporting a PER of 25.1, the highest on the team. He is one of four different Wildcats to average in double-figures this season, led by Seniors Darrun Hilliard (12.4 points) and JayVaughn Pinkston (10.6 points). After dropping 43 points in back-to-back victories over the likes of Temple (85-62) and Syracuse (82-77), Hilliard has come back down to Earth over the past two outings, shooting just 6-of-14 (42.9%) from the field, including 2-of-6 from three (33.3%) opposed to the 15-of-24 he shot beforehand (62.5%), including a blistering 10-of-15 from long range (66.7%). Wright will count on the Senior Guard to reclaim his touch from the perimeter, for while Villanova is a sound offensive team, they oftentimes struggle the further they are away from the rim. Thus far, the Wildcats have scored 75.9 points (36th Nationally) on 46.8% shooting from the field (49th Nationally) including 54.5% shooting from within the three-point arc (22nd Nationally), and 33.7% from beyond it (183rd Nationally), while dishing out 15.1 assists (56th Nationally) and committing only 11.4 turnovers (85th Nationally). And though they have a propensity to throw their fair share of bricks from three, they do however make quite a living at the charity stripe; ‘Nova attempts 24.5 free-throws per game (36th Nationally), netting 70.6% of them (119th Nationally). It’s really quantity over quality at that point, as they have drained 17.3 freebies on average, twenty-fourth-best in the country.
Meanwhile, after a promising start, it looks like a case of deja vu as St. John’s (11-3, 0-2 in Big East) have again dropped their first two games upon the start of conference play. Last season, the Red Storm began their Big East trek winless through their first five games, en route to a disappointing 10-8 record. This season, a sterling 11-1 start is beginning to spoil after losses to the likes of Seton Hall (78-67) and Butler (73-69). Just as their opponent tonight had on Saturday, Steve Lavin’s charges struggled to contain the Pirates’ explosive backcourt, allowing the hosts to shoot 46.0% from the field, including 10-of-23 from three (43.5%). Seton Hall moved the ball at will, dishing out a healthy eighteen assists, while the Storm laid stuck in the mud; the visitors shot just 43.3% from the field, but despite getting to the rim at will (52.5%), they couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean from the perimeter, where D’Angelo Harrison and Co. could muster a poor 5-of-20 shooting (25.0%). It was more of the same at home against the Bulldogs, who torched the Johnnies to the tune of 48.1% shooting from the field, including 7-of-12 from beyond three (58.3%). Lavin saw his team move the ball better (ten assists), but still struggle from three all the same (4-of-14, 28.6%), a trend that is swiftly developing into a glaring weakness. Harrison scored a season-high 31 points on 10-of-21 shooting from the field (47.6%), along with 9-of-11 from the free-throw line (81.8%), while totaling five rebounds, two assists, three steals, and a block. However, the rest of the team provided very little support; the short-handed hosts received just 36 points from the rest of the team, including a big fat donut from the bench.
Thankfully, help is on the way tonight as Lavin is expected to have Rysheed Jordan back after the Sophomore Guard left the team briefly to be with his family after the unfortunate death of his Grandmother. Jordan has averaged 14.0 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 2.1 steals in a reserve role off the Bench, but his presence would provide a great deal of creativity to the St. John’s offense. After all, he is their second-leading scorer despite logging just 29.2 minutes per game. Benefiting the most from his return will be Harrison, who has had to carry offensive load of late; the Senior Guard has averaged 20.3 points on 45.4% shooting from the field, including a team-best 35.0% from downtown, along with 6.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. Over the last three contests, he has averaged 25.7 points on 52.9% shooting from the field, along with 3.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.7 steals over that stretch. Though he at times has played out of control, there is no denying the energy and enthusiasm he injects into the Storm, and with Jordan back in the rotation, Lavin will be able to utilize them both on the court at the same time, which should give opponents fits. And the more guard the merrier for the Storm, who have resorted to a perimeter-heavy lineup to great success this season. Thus far, St. John’s has scored 71.2 points (111th Nationally) on 44.7% shooting from the field (123rd Nationally), including a stellar 50.3% from within the three-point arc (119th Nationally), despite coming in at a league-low 30.8% from beyond the arc (274th Nationally). With that said, they aren’t the most efficient of teams, even with all the guards they put on the court; there is no doubt that Lavin would prefer to see more ball movement out of his charges, but at 12.2 assists per game, they dead-last in the Big East. It’s a good thing these kids are adept at raising hell on the defensive end, because otherwise they’d be even worse off offensively. St. John’s has allowed 60.6 points (55th Nationally) on 37.8% shooting from the field (32nd Nationally), including 41.7% from within the three-point line (30th Nationally), and 30.5% from beyond it (71st Nationally), while permitting 12.4 assists (213th Nationally), and forcing 14.1 turnovers (117th Nationally). On the glass they’ve also proven to be a menace, pulling down 38.0 rebounds per game (79th Nationally), while blocking a ridiculous seven shots a night, sixth-most in the country. Junior Center Chris Obekpa has been a first class deterrent in the paint, using his 6-10 frame to swat 3.9 attempts per game, second-most in Division-1. He’ll have to stay on the court and avoid foul trouble against the Wildcats, who too struggle from three, and much more likely to test them in the lane. Otherwise, you can make that thirteen out of fourteen defeats to Villanova, including six straight.