Three games into conference play and the St. John's Red Storm (9-7, 0-4) are already playing a 'must-win' game. After four straight losses to Xavier, Georgetown, Villanova, and DePaul, the Johnnies are off to their worst conference start since the 2003-04 season when they finished 1-15 in the Big East. A season that began with visions of the NCAA Tournament will likely be destined for the NIT or worse if Head Coach Steve Lavin's group don't start winning games in a hurry. Tonight, the Providence Friars (11-5, 1-2) come to Carnesecca Arena in Queens, New York to play what should be another tightly contested Big East contest. The game tips at 7 P.M. EST and can be viewed on Fox Sports 1.
Here are a few things to keep an eye on for tonight's game:
St. John's Interior vs. Providence Interior
St. John's leads the nation with 8.9 blocks per game but as good as they are protecting the rim on defense, they are down right awful on the offensive side of the ball. Sophomore forward Chris Obekpa is arguably the most feared shot blocker in the nation but is not a threat when he touches the ball inside. There isn't a single player on the St. John's roster who has the ability to catch the ball in the post, make a move and finish at the rim. Junior forward JaKarr Sampson and senior forward Orlando Sanchez are both 6-8 but much of their offense is generated off the dribble and from mid-range.
The Red Storm average 37 rebounds per game which puts them at 114th in the country. Uncoincidentally, St. John's has lost the rebounding battle in each of its last four losses. Providence has a talented duo in 6-9 sophomore Tyler Harris (13.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG) and 6-9 senior forward Kadeem Batts (12.6 PPG, 6.7 RPG) that will challenge St. John's inside. The Friars are number one in the country in free throw shooting percentage (79.7%) and the Johnnies have been putting teams on the line at an alarming rate. Look for Providence to work the ball inside early.
St. John's freshman Rysheed Jordan has been getting better and better on each side of the floor with every game. Tonight, he will draw his toughest matchup to date against Providence's uber-talented senior point guard Bryce Cotton. Cotton is the second leading scorer in the Big East, averaging 20.2 points per game, while also averaging a team-high 5.7 assists. At 6-5, Jordan holds a big size advantage over the 6-1 Cotton and must attack Providence's guard on the bounce and try and get him in foul trouble. Cotton currently leads the Big East in three-pointers made, assists per game, minutes per game, effective field goal percentage and if it wasn't for Creighton's Doug McDermott, he would lead the Big East in points per game as well. Jordan must neutralize Cotton if the Red Storm look to win.
Lavin has one of the deepest rosters in the nation at his disposal and has been rotating his lineups like a hockey coach changes lines. Lavin has had the luxury of tinkering with lineups to figure out what works and what doesn't-perhaps to the point where the team can't find its identity. Seven players on the roster average at least 19 minutes per game and all 13 scholarship players have started at one point or another. With so many lineup changes and players constantly coming in and out, it has been tough for the team to gel to play with sustained consistency. The constant substitutions have done more harm than good and at times have been downright puzzling, as seen against DePaul when Max Hooper and Sir'Dominic Pointer were in during crunch time while JaKarr Sampson sat on the bench.
Playing with a sense of urgency, St. John's eeks out a win on its home court and keeps hope alive.
Red Storm 72, Friars 68