Following an 87-86 double-overtime home loss to Providence on January 16, St. John's was left for dead. With five-straight losses to open the conference season, the Red Storm's preseason dreams of the NCAA Tournament had evaporated and the disappointment was evident from the player's, coaches, and media. But with three-straight wins in the past week, the Johnnies look like they may have turned a corner and are playing much more cohesive, team basketball. While the odds of making the Tournament are still long, St. John's is starting to show flashes of a team that was heralded as a threat flying under the radar to start the season.
On Tuesday night, the Red Storm travel to Omaha, Nebraska to take on a surging Creighton Blue Jays team that is currently ranked 20th in the nation by the AP. The Blue Jays are led by National Player of the Year contender Doug McDermott (24.3 points, 7.2 boards) and are an offensive juggernaut, averaging 82.3 points per game (19th in the nation), 18.6 assists (1st), and shooting 49.3 percent (11th), per ESPN.com. St. John's will have its hands full with McDermott and one of college basketball's best homecourt advantages. The Red Storm will have to play the best game of the season thus far to have a shot at taking down the Big East frontrunner.
The game tips at 9 PM EST, Tuesday on Fox Sports 1.
Here's what to keep an eye on in Tuesday's matchup:
The Emergence of Jamal Branch
Rysheed Jordan won Big East Rookie of the Week but it's been Jamal Branch who has been the difference maker for the Red Storm. After transferring from Texas A&M, Branch has battled injury problems and as a result, had trouble finding his niche in the program. Despite great talent and the Red Storm's need for a playmaking point guard, Branch seemed to be the odd man out--especially with Jordan in the fold.
The 6-3 sophomore has been the team's steadiest point guard during the Red Storm's winning streak. Branch has averaged 20+ minutes over the past three games and had a 4-point, 8-assist, 5-rebound, 2-steal, 0-turnover performance on Saturday against Butler. Lavin has been employing a Branch-Jordan-D'Angelo Harrison three guard lineup that allows Jordan to move off the ball and become more of a scorer where hs is most effective. Branch has looked like the team's best option as a playmaker and Lavin will likely give him more minutes.
JaKarr Sampson's Re-Emergence
The reigning Big East Rookie of the Year is averaging 12.6 points and 6.4 boards per game on the season but found himself in quite the funk through the first four games of Big East play. In four straight losses, Sampson averaged 8.5 points and 6 rebounds per game while shooting 34 percent from the field. His confidence was clearly shaken after playing just 18 minutes against DePaul.
Over the past week, Sampson has recovered nicely and has strung together four-straight games with averages of 16.2 points and 5.5 boards while shooting 59.2 percent from the field. Sampson has refound his mid-range game and has his confidence back.
You Can't Stop Doug McDermott, You Can Only Hope To Contain Him
Doug McDermott is unquestionably the top scorer in the NCAA and gets his points night-in and night-out. Between Sir'Dominic Pointer and Sampson, St. John's has two defenders who can keep up with McDermott, thanks to their athleticism and length, but by no means does that guarantee they will be able to stop the superb scoring threat. St. John's will have to force McDermott into tough shots and make him earn every one of his baskets while keeping him off the boards as he also leads the Blue Jays in rebounding.
Battle on the Boards
Both teams have had trouble rebounding this season. St. John's averages 36.8 boards per game compared to Creighton's 36.9, good enough for 110th and 103rd in the nation, respectively. Both teams lack a true interior threat and St. John's has struggled in the post on both ends all season long. Going against a smaller front line, Creighton's 6-11 junior Will Artino may get extended minutes to help the Blue Jays inside. For St. John's, it will be imperative for them to limit second chance opportunities and keep the Blue Jays off the boards. Sampson, God'sgift Achiuwa, Chris Obekpa and Orlando Sanchez all must attack the glass.
To put it bluntly, the Red Storm are a terrible 3-point shooting team. As a team, the Johnnies shoot a putrid 34.1 percent from the field, and that number is highly inflated thanks to the 66.7 percent long-range shooting of Marc-Antoine Bourgault, who has taken all of six attempts this season. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, are one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the country and are led on the perimeter by both McDermott and the sharpshooting Ethan Wragge.
Wragge, a redshirt senior forward, is shooting a scorching 50 percent from three (tops in the nation) and has hit 77 3-pointers so far this season (third in the nation). The Blue Jays showed how much damage they can do from beyond the arc when they hit a Big East record 21 3-pointers against then number 4 Villanova. St. John's will have to play tremendous perimeter defense or things will get ugly.
St. John's has been playing great ball as of late but tend to struggle against well-coached, experienced teams with a high basketball IQ. Playing at Creighton is one of the toughest draws in college basketball and the Blue Jays have too many weapons at their disposal. Creighton 85, St. John's 78.