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Preview: Grand Canyon vs. St. John’s

The Red Storm are in Phoenix, set for an after dark clash against Grand Canyon.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at St. John Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

After a 2-1 trip to Orlando, the St. John’s Red Storm (7-1) made a quick stop at home to rout the Sacred Heart Pioneers 90-55. Now, they set off on the road again, this time for two games on the West Coast.

The first of those games will see the Johnnies take on the Grand Canyon Antelopes (5-1) of the Western Athletic Conference. The matchup is a part of the Valley of the Sun Shootout and will be played on a neutral site: the home arena of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.

This is the first ever meeting between St. John’s and Grand Canyon. In fact, the Red Storm has only ever played two other games against current WAC schools. The latest occurrence was Dec. 21, 2011 against Texas-Pan American (now Texas-Rio Grande Valley). St. John’s won 66-61. The other was a 77-60 win over Seattle U. on Dec. 16, 1977.

Major Keys

Time & Place: 11:30 PM ET, Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, Arizona

TV: ESPNU (Chuckie Kempf, Adrian Branch)

Radio: 970 AM WNYM (John Minko, Brian Mahoney)

Streaming: WatchESPN (where available)

Gambling (via OddsShark): St. John’s opened as 6-point favorites. They are 3-3 against the spread this season.

About the Combatants

Grand Canyon: You may recognize the name “Grand Canyon University” from their constant commercials on television and online. GCU began its Division I transition in 2013 and this is their first season as a full member. They’re the only for-profit institution at the D-I level.

The Antelopes are in the midst of a home-intensive stretch on their schedule. This will be their first matchup this season outside of GCU Arena. They play two more games after this before even leaving Phoenix. After that, they’ll head to Idaho on Dec. 13 to take on Boise State.

St. John’s is surely the toughest opponent they have faced so far. According to College Basketball Reference, GCU has the 348th-toughest schedule in the country. A Dec. 23 game at Louisville and a Dec. 30 matchup at Illinois seem to be the only other challenges they’ll face before conference play.

Head coach Dan Majerle’s squad is led by redshirt senior Joshua Braun. Braun averages a team-high 15.5 points per game and shoots 40.5 percent from 3-point range. The team also features Casey Benson, a grad transfer that last played for Oregon. Benson is averaging 11.0 points, 5.3 assists, and 4.7 rebounds per game for GCU.

Grand Canyon’s best asset is their perimeter defense. They have held opponents to the fewest total 3-pointers attempted (24) and made (91) in the country. GCU has also held teams to 26.4 percent shooting beyond the arc, 13th-best in Division I. As a result, teams have averaged 58.5 points per game against the Antelopes, fifth-fewest points in the nation.

St. John’s: The Red Storm head out west without key player Marcus LoVett. He will be back in New York recovering from a sprained knee. It will be a tough, but doable, task for St. John’s to win on the road without their second-highest scorer and second-best 3-point shooter.

Shamorie Ponds will likely be more than happy to try and pick up the slack. He remains the team’s leading scorer and distributor at 19.3 points and 5.0 assists per game. In the advanced stats department, he leads the team in Player Efficiency Rating (25.6 PER) and Win Shares (1.8 wins contributed).

The rest of the rotation will also have to step up. After a rough first half against Sacred Heart, things got better in the second half en route to the win. All five starters did a good job, managing to score double-figures. With the short-handed rotation, the starting unit may have to do more of the same in Phoenix.

This will be an interesting matchup of stingy defenses, as the Johnnies have only allowed the 11th-fewest points per game in the nation (60.0). It may be a matter of who forces the most mistakes and gets out in transition more often.

St. John’s will need to avoid the dreaded slow start and get the fastbreak-dunking machine up and running as soon as possible. If they can do that, the Red Storm won’t have a problem pulling out a win in the desert.