9:10 PM EST, TruTV – Line: Arizona State -2, Over/Under: 152.5
After a matchup of Eleven Seeds featuring a pair of legendary Head Coaches, what better way to close out the First Four than pitting two former legendary players against each other, as the St. John’s Red Storm faces off against the Arizona State Sun Devils for the right to meet the Six Seed Buffalo Bulls on Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma? For all intents and purposes, St. John’s (21-12, 8-10 in Big East) must count themselves fortunate for being selected to participate in this NCAA Tournament, for they have been a unmitigated mess for much of the second half of the Regular Season. The Red Storm began the campaign a perfect 12-0, but were quickly exposed once they embarked on their league schedule, finishing a middling 8-10 in Big East play. While we could certainly debate the merits of their inclusion in the Tournament, keep in mind that they were the last of the At-Large teams to be selected, and when you get down to trying to separate the Sixty-Eighth team from the Sixty-Ninth… well, you can see how difficult a task that could be. Either way, how they got in and should they have gotten into the tourney mean nothing now, for this is an opportunity to prove the legion of doubters wrong and elevate the profile of this once successful Program. And that’s precisely what makes this a win for Chris Mullin, who in his fourth year at his Alma Matta where he led them to a Final Four and earned three consecutive Big East Player of the Year awards, has the Red Storm back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015, and just the third time in the last seventeen years. In fact, if they manage to turn the tide and win tonight, it would mark the school’s first NCAA Tournament victory in nineteen years. After going a miserable 8-24 in his first season on the sideline, Mullin has gradually rebuilt St. John’s, and deserves a lot of credit for returning them to this position. However, when you look at their credentials heading into the Tournament, and there really isn’t a whole lot to like. Many view their hot start to the campaign as mere fool’s gold, accumulating empty victories over weaker competition, with none of their first twelve opponents being ranked. It also certainly didn’t help to amass a sub-.500 record in conference play, for after all, the Big East hasn’t been the Big East of old for quite some time. Furthermore, the Storm have a scarce amount of momentum on their side, having won just two out of their last seven contests. However, this is a fairly experienced, balanced, and deep team, with all five starters averaging in double-figures, led by Shamorie Ponds (19.5 PTS, 45.6% FG, 35.5% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 5.2 AST, 2.6 STL, 27.0 PER), who at one point this season strung together eight consecutive conference games in which he scored at least Twenty Points.
When we last saw them, St. John’s were on the losing side of an 86-54 drubbing at the hands of Marquette in the Second Round of the Big East Tournament, a matchup in which they were never really competitive in from the start. Trailing by Twelve Points at Halftime, the Red Storm cut the deficit to 37-43 early in the Second Period, but were eventually run out of Madison Square Garden as the Golden Eagles outscored them 48-28 down the stretch. It was an absolutely abysmal shooting performance for Mullin’s charges, who struggled to knock down just 32.8% of their attempts from the field, including a scant 3-of-20 from beyond the arc (15.0%), while committing nearly as many Turnovers (9) as Assists (10). When you miss that many shots, it’s expected to get hammered on the glass, which is precisely what happened, as they were outrebounded by a whopping Eighteen Boards. The effort on the defensive end of the court wasn’t much to speak of either, as Marquette torched the Storm on a blistering 50.9% shooting from the floor, including 11-of-23 from downtown (47.8%), owning a heavy Plus-24 advantage in that last regard. Also, the battle of All-Big East Guards failed to live up to expectations, as the aforementioned Ponds paled in comparison to his counterpart Markus Howard, who dismantled the quasi-home side, scoring Thirty Points on 8-of-15 shooting (53.3%), including 3-of-6 from three (50.0%). Ponds, for his troubles was relegated to just Thirteen Points on 4-of-14 shooting (28.6%), missing all four of his attempts from long-range. In all fairness, he didn’t receive much help, for the reminder of that balanced Supporting Cast struggled just as much; Fellow Guards Mustapha Heron (14.9 PTS, 45.2% FG, 42.1% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 1.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 16.0 PER) and LJ Figueroa (14.3 PTS, 51.3% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 6.2 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.8 STL, 21.0 PER) combined for Fourteen Points on 5-of-18 shooting overall (31.3%), including 1-of-7 from three (14.3%), accounting for Seven Turnovers in comparison to just Three Assists, were anything but supportive.
Meanwhile, making their second consecutive appearance in the First Four is Arizona State (22-10, 12-6 in Pac-12), who would very much prefer that this trip to the Big Dance lasts longer than it’s predecessor. In his third year in Tempe, Arizona, Bobby Hurley guided the Sun Devils back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years, meeting Syracuse in a battle of Eleven Seeds. Unfortunately, Hurley’s charges didn’t yet possess the requisite experience to best the seasoned Orange, falling in a 56-60 defeat. A year later, they’re hoping that the second time will indeed be a charm for a Program that hasn’t enjoyed much success in the Tournament, participating in just their fifth NCAA since the 1999-2000 campaign. However, just like his counterpart on the opposing sideline, Hurley deserves a good deal of credit for rebuilding this Program, who are enjoying back-to-back tourney appearances for the first time since 1981. While St. John’s were very fortunate to be selected by the Committee, we’d like to make the argument that Arizona State probably deserved a higher seed than what they were dealt with. By and large, this is a team that is being penalized for the overall weakness of the Pac-12 as a conference, for despite going 12-6 in league play, the Sun Devils didn’t face a single ranked opponent during that stretch. The traditional powers out West, including Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA all experienced subpar seasons, and these guys have suffered for it. With that said, a look at their resume’ before entering conference play will reveal their quality. Hurley’s charges went 9-3 in their non-conference schedule, but managed to earn some impressive wins against ranked opposition, including a 72-67 victory over then-No. 15 Mississippi State on a neural floor, and by far and away the most significant feather in their cap, an 80-76 triumph over then-No. One Kansas. Hell, they even hung tight with No. Six Nevada (66-72), which in our humble opinion just about wipes away that narrow loss to Princeton (66-67). Where this team struggled to match up with Syracuse’s size and physicality a year ago, Hurley has addressed said deficiencies, developing a greater total package in the process. Arizona State ranked Twenty-First Overall in Rebounding (40.1), and has done a much better job of defending in 2018-2019, relegating the opposition to 41.3% shooting from the field, ranking Fifty-Second in the country. Furthermore, few teams have proven more adept at getting to the Charity Stripe than these guys, who have attempted the seventh-most Free-Throws in the nation (25.9), making 556 of them (15th Overall). Freshman Guard Luquentz Dort (16.1 PTS, 40.3% FG, 31.5% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.6 STL, 16.6 PER) was an absolute find from north of the border, while Senior Forward Zylan Cheatham (11.8 PTS, 53.9% FG, 43.5% 3FG, 10.4 REB, 3.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.8 BLK, 18.4 PER) has been a workhorse in the Paint, pulling down 10.4 Rebounds per Game, and a huge reason as to why the Devils have managed to outrebound opponents by a margin of 4.8 Boards per Game. Keep an eye on that particular statistic, for while this team excels on the glass, St. John’s does not, earning a Minus-6.2 Rebounding Differential this season.
When we last saw Arizona State, they fell just short of advancing to the Pac-12 Championship Game, in a wild 79-75 affair with surging Oregon, that required overtime to decided a victor. The Sun Devils were the Second Seed and the Ducks the Sixth, so one would have had to imagine that the former would have been the fresher side, but that ultimately gave way to the desperation of the latter, who needed to win out in order to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Oregon jumped out to an early lead, establishing a 35-28 advantage at Halftime, before things tightened back up in a Second Half that was spoiled by a litany of fouls. After falling behind, the Ducks hit a three-pointer to tie the contest with just 1:32 left in Regulation, eventually sending the outing to Overtime. From there, they scored the first Eight Points of the extra period, though Arizona State would retaliate in short order, tying the game with Fifty-Eight Seconds left on the clock. However, the aforementioned Dort missed a potential game-winning Three-Pointer with 8.8 remaining, leading to a pair of Free-Throws for their opponent, effectively ending the matter altogether. It was far from an efficient day at the office for Hurley’s troops, who shot just 40.0% from the field, including a disappointing 14-of-37 from inside the arc (37.8%). They managed to get back into the affair during the Second Half thanks in large part to getting to the Stripe, where they made 23-of-31 overall (74.2%), outscoring Oregon by Ten Points in that regard. With that said, they didn’t enjoy the advantage on the lass that they’re accustomed to (Plus-2), and were very sloppy with the basketball, particularly in the First Half, committing more Turnovers (14) than Assists (13). Dort scored a team-high Sixteen Points, but largely struggled on 5-of-13 shooting from the field (38.5%), while Cheatham added Fourteen Points and Nine Rebounds, though they accounted for Six of their team’s Turnovers. There were a total of Forty-Three Personal Fouls committed in this contest, leading to Seventy-Five Free-Throws attempted by the two sides, which has been a bit of a double-edge sword for the Sun Devils this season. While we spoke earlier of their prolific shooting from the Stripe, they’ve also put their opponents in that very same position, permitting an average of 22.7 Free-Throw Attempts per Game (325th Overall). This could very well degenerate into a Foul-Shooting Parade tonight…