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Previewing St. John's: Rutgers Basketball Game 22

The guys over at Rumble in the Garden were kind enough to give us a preview of what Rutgers next opponent, St. John's, has to offer.

This is a huge game for both teams.  Rutgers needs this game if it wants to keep it's NIT hopes alive.  St. John's needs this game to avoid a letdown after their Duke smackdown and to push for an NCAA bid.  Here's my answers to their five questions.

Q&A after the jump...

1) This season has seemed a little rocky to this outsider.  Early in the year SJU dropped two tough ones to Fordham and St. Bonaventure.  Since then they've had some good wins, including G'Town and the annihilation of Duke.  What's changed?
Here's the line I use with friends and fellow writers who ask this question: Steve Lavin is, first, a teacher and a tinkerer. The early season saw Lavin using the non-conference games to figure out what and who worked for his team... and what/ who did not.  The early games showed that some members of the team - or the team itself - weren't able to put opponents away or defend the perimeter within the zone that Lavin and the staff wanted to run. And then Bonaventure happened. Fordham happened.  I like to call those two schools the Schools That Shall No Longer Be Named, that devil that you know will catch up with you when the NCAA Tournament hopes seem solid.

So what changed? The staff slowed the pace, stopped trying to get them to run. They focused on scoring inside first, drawing fouls second, and shooting threes almost never. It's worked decently. The team has played to control the game, holds the ball into deep in the shot clock, and keeps it simple. The Duke game was similar in some ways. But in others, well, they ran and attacked, a nice in-game change from Lavin. But the heart of the matter is - the players and coaches found a winning way to play together, a happy medium.
2)  What sort of defense and offense does SJU run?
Technically, Lavin mentions the flex offense. I don't know if it's as complex as that; the team holds the ball and tries to get it in to Justin Brownlee on the blocks, who uses his agility to get shots off. He's kind of a big wing playing center. They move the ball around and then look to get Dwight Hardy a lane to the rim, or some deep post position for Justin Burrell.

On defense, the Johnnies will extend their defense and trap a little, but more to speed up the opponent. They want to double and drive ballhandlers into bad positions in the paint. They'll leave some open three-point shooters, so the Scarlet Knights will look to capitalize on that.
3) Tell us a little about this amazing recruiting class Lavin has coming in.
It's really very good! Though I will say that for both Rutgers and St. John's fans, I hope they will be patient - this isn't some kind of Kentucky class either school has coming in, an instant impact group. These guys will struggle their freshman year, and their sophomore years on could be special. 

The class has a lot of versatile wing players, some solid offensive talent, and a lot of athletic length. Not much girth inside, though. But a lot of long talent and a lot of competition for spots.
4) Who's your best player this year?  Why?
Justin Brownlee or Paris Horne. Brownlee is great in the team's wins, a stalwart offensive presence in the low post who can posterize given a little head of steam. Very versatile. Paris is the team's ace defender, and has taken to that role with no complaint. He could score more - and did against Duke - but he concentrates on making good defensive plays and being pesky to the other team's perimeter threat. 
5)  How has Lavin differed from Norm Roberts?
He's competent.

Oh, okay. Lavin is much more engaging with the media; he feeds the media lines and they eat it with Lavin-approved spoons. He is also a bit more philosophical in his pre- and post- game conversations - a better quote, filled with analogies and strange imagery. 

You can also see that he probably tends toward a faster offense, but this team isn't built quite for that. He prefers passing over dribbling (and over overdribbling), unlike Norm's offensive offense, which had so much aimless ball-pounding by guys that weren't talented dribblers... anyway. 
6) What player has been the biggest surprise for you this year?

D.J. Kennedy. He's been a negative surprise. He has settled into being a role-player, but I'm not sure if that's his choice, entirely. Kennedy's style of player required him to have the ball in his hands. Not that he's a ball-movement killer, but he scores off the dribble. The new style is more about moving the ball through the pass. Kennedy's jump shot hasn't been there, and he hasn't found ways to drive.

He's still an integral part of the team - a long defender with the ability to collect steals and make passes. But he's not the team star he was last year.
7) With the Mike Rice and Steve Lavin hirings, and their respective recruiting classes, do you expect SJU and Rutgers to become a bigger rivalry?

I do. Both coaches have some colorful and fun quotes, both want to rule the NYC area, and both will compete for some of Jersey's best talent.  
8)  Do you have a prediction for the game?  Who wins?  What's the score?
Not really. I *think* St. John's wins, 67-61, but I could also see the Johnnies taking it to the Scarlet Knights. And I could see them confused and falling to Rutgers by 5 points, especially if they don't defend the perimeter!