The first meeting this year between Georgetown and St. John’s on Jan. 4 was basically over before it started. The Hoyas, led by an uncharacteristically hot 9-for-13 performance from three-point range, buried the Red Storm early in the first half en route to an easy 77-60 victory.
That defeat was one of five which led off Big East play for St. John’s. Since then, they have come roaring back and after last weekend’s home victory over Creighton and a last second win at Seton Hall, have evened up their conference record at 6-6. With a relatively easy schedule to finish the season, the Red Storm are in pretty good position to finish with a winning conference record, which they desperately need to get in the NCAA Tournament given their lackluster nonconference performance.
That puts huge importance on tonight’s game with Georgetown, also 6-6 in the Big East and squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. With a difficult closing kick, the Hoyas need every winnable game they can get and that includes tonight’s battle at Madison Square Garden. In truth, both teams need this game badly because the loser will have a very difficult time getting to the conference record they need (10-8 for St. John’s, 9-9 for Georgetown) to be serious contenders for a NCAA Tournament bid.
Georgetown’s current four game winning streak has been accompanied by a massive improvement in both committing fouls and getting to the free throw line themselves. The erasure of the large free throw deficits experienced earlier in the season has ameliorated the Hoyas biggest problem. They actually did manage to dominate St. John’s at the line in the first meeting, and being able to do so again will be a major key for them.
In a related note, Georgetown’s foul prone front court of Mikael Hopkins, Nate Lubick, and Moses Ayegba will need to stay in the game. St. John’s has one of the better big guy rotations in the conference with JaKarr Sampson, Orlando Sanchez, Chris Obekpa, and God’sgift Achiuwa. If the Hoyas are once again reduced to their emergency mini-lineup featuring Reggie Cameron or John Caprio at center, the Red Storm should be able to eat them alive by scoring inside and dominating the boards. Hopkins, in particular, needs to be especially careful to avoid his trademark silly fouls away from the ball and moving screens. If he can do so and stay in the game the Hoyas can effectively counter St. John’s inside.
St. John’s survives offensively by not turning the ball over. They need the extra chances because they do not shoot the ball well, either from in close or long range. Sampson takes a bunch of shots on the inside but isn’t all that good at making them. Only shooting guard Phil Greene (40.8%) and wingman D’Angelo Harrison (36.9%) are any sort of threat from long range. Ideally, defensive ace Jabril Trawick can cover and take care of fellow wingman SirDominic Porter, who isn’t much of a shooter but who can usually be effective getting to the line. Harrison is a horribly inefficient shooter inside the three point line, so the Hoyas can try guarding him with the smaller Markel Starks or D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera in hopes of daring him to drive inside. I’d also look for the Hoyas to play a good amount of zone defense as it would seem to be the ideal matchup against this St. John’s offense.
Offensively, the Hoyas continue to seek that mystical moment when star guards Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera get hot at the same time. If that happens, the normally poor Hoya offense could potentially get going. If neither is on, it’s hard to see how Georgetown can generate nearly enough offense to win. Jabril Trawick, Aaron Bowen, and Nate Lubick have stepped up their offensive games during the winning streak, and the Hoyas will need two of them to remain effective should either Starks or Smith-Rivera falter. Mikael Hopkins remains a huge problem for Georgetown offensively. He is quite active, but this is a bad thing considering his penchant for turnovers and missed layups. His foul trouble actually helps the team offensively, even while being potentially fatal on the other end.
The Hoyas have also limited their perennial turnover problems in recent games, a hugely positive development they need to keep going given their uninspiring shooting.
St. John’s is much better than they showed in the first meeting and this should be a better game. Playing a competent team on the road will be an excellent test to see if Georgetown’s winning streak is a fluke or a real sign of improved play. The stakes are about as high as they can be in February, as the winner will more likely than not hear their name called on Selection Sunday while the loser will have excellent odds of vying to return to Madison Square Garden for the NIT. The last four games have been similar sort of "eliminators" for Georgetown, so the stakes aren’t new. Look for both teams to bring their best game to this one.