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Five Questions Ahead Of Friday’s Rutgers-St. John’s Revival

We look back at the past in this series, as well as a few things to ponder about this matchup

Big East Basketball Tournament - Second Round Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

The Rutgers men’s basketball team is back in action this Friday at the RAC against former Big East foe St. John’s. It’s been quite a series through the years, dating back six decades and encompassing 41 meetings in total, with the Johnnies winning 27 of them. They’ve met in the regular season, the Big East conference Tournament, and even the NCAA Tournament. In fact, last season they met in a charity exhibition game as well. This season the two teams are meeting as part of the Gavitt Games that take place annually between the Big East and Big Ten. Rutgers last played St. John’s in 2015 as part of the same event.

Due to the fact that this is a big game so early in the season for both teams, as well as the history involved between the two programs, the hoops junkies of On The Banks got together to answer five questions ahead of Friday’s contest. Let’s tip it off here.

What Is Your Favorite Memory Of This Series?

David Anderson: After an odd scheduling quirk, RU and St. John’s did not meet in 1995. So the first contest against insanely hyped Felipe Lopez and Zendon Hamilton was when they were sophomores in 1996. At the time, my CYO rec basketball team had red T-shirts for uniforms and despite my best efforts was called the “Red Storm” instead of the “Scarlet Knights.” Rutgers was in free fall during a disappointing senior season for Damon Santiago and Andrew Kolbasovsky, but ended up defeating St. John’s by 12. RU then won the next two games, the beginning of a hopeful stretch of generally good basketball as Rob Hodgson and Geoff Billet turned out to be pretty good players. For the next nine or so years, it always felt like Rutgers was legitimately a player or two away from finally getting back to the NCAA tournament.

Dave White: Is it possible to not have a favorite memory in this series? Ha! That’s not true, I just thought of one. In 2006, needing a win to clinch a Big East Tournament berth (back in those days everyone didn’t make the Tournament), Rutgers had to go into Carnesseca Arena. If you remember the Gary Waters era, Rutgers never fared particularly well on the road. But that season, the team had a really special weapon in Quincy Douby. Douby took over the game, scored 36 points and led the team to a twelve point victory. The next game, Rutgers went on to beat Seton Hall in the first game of the Big East Tournament.

Patrick Mella: My favorite memory is one that didn’t even count! I had always wanted to catch a Rutgers vs St. John’s game but for whatever reason it just never materialized. Until last year, when Rutgers hosted the Red Storm at the RAC. If I remember correctly the weather wasn’t very good, add the fact that it was an exhibition games and needless to say the RAC wasn’t exactly packed. But regardless, this was a St. John’s team that was hovering right around the 50’s according to the Kenpom rankings and I thought a great test, even if the game didn’t technically count. For anyone who remembers the game, the feeling was very much of a regular season matchup and the crowd was really awesome despite being diminutive in size. I’ll keep it short here, but Rutgers was able to make a late run after a Mike Williams injury and was able to get a last second bucket to secure the surprise victory. If was great affirmation that the program was in headed in the right direction. Despite St. John’s having more talent, Rutgers was able to steal a game that they really had no business winning.

Aaron Breitman: Great minds think alike Dave White. For me, it was the March 6th, 2006 meeting that Rutgers won 82-70 on the road. The Scarlet Knights had lost a heartbreaker to the Johnnies one month prior and this was a great way to end the regular season, finishing 17-12. Aside from Douby’s outstanding performance that was normal at this point in his career, I looked at the box score and noticed eight different Rutgers players grabbed 3 or more rebounds in this game. Not too shabby. This team inched closer to the NCAA bubble with an opening round win over Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament, completing very satisfying back to back victories over the two local programs, before losing to Villanova. While the season ended in disappointment in the second round of the NIT, this was the last winning team Rutgers has had.

NOTE: The Rutgers win over St. John’s in March of 1976 to remain unbeaten at 27-0 and earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament is the biggest win in the series. In addition, there was the classic victory over the Johnnies in the 1978 ECAC Holiday Festival.

Most Painful Memory In This Series

David Anderson: Without question the 2011 Big East tournament matchup at Madison Square Garden. I was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras and only caught part of RU’s somewhat surprising defeat of Seton Hall in the opener. RU had loss by two at Carnesecca Arena earlier in the year (not the Garden) and the Red Storm in that time had leapt to 17th in the AP poll. I along with a friend from North Brunswick elected to forego one of the parades to catch the contest (full game on youtube) that was ultimately decided by a number of questionable calls. After Rutgers took a 61-60 lead with 57.9 seconds to go, all hell broke loose. Even St. John’s alum Mike Francesa of WFAN called it “an embarrassment for the Big East”. The decision to throw a long pass to Biruta may have been wrong, but the push off on the free throw rebound earlier then of course traveling and stepping out of bounds with 1.7 on the clock were both ridiculous even after review somehow. As a Mets, Jets, and Rutgers fan I have seen some weird endings, but this takes the cake. Had I been alive in 1979, the NCAA tournament loss after RU had beaten St. John’s twice earlier that season would be in contention or the Saturday game in 1980 when Roy Hinson blocked a shot then St. John’s quickly recovered the ball and hit a buzzer beater.

Dave White: DO WE HAVE TO DO THIS, AARON? Of course, the 2011 Big East Tournament game is number one on the list. I mean, there are still 1.8 seconds on the clock, so we can all still play, right? But a lesser known killer came earlier that season. In the middle of a ton of hard fought battles, Rutgers was looking for a big conference win. And again Rutgers had to go into Carnesseca Arena. The Johnnies were talented and the Scarlet Knights battled them. In fact, twice Rutgers came back from double digit deficits. And with 18 seconds left, Robert Lumpkins (yes, Robert Lumpkins) drained a three point shot to the tie the game. But Justin Brownlee, injured fingers and all, willed in a lay-up with under 5 seconds left. Dane Miller missed an off-balance three to end the game. Not as painful as what would happen a month later, but painful nonetheless.

Patrick Mella: So you’re going to open up this wound huh? The 2011 Big East Tournament Screw Job. Still to this day it’s one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen to end a game. There was no guarantee that Rutgers would’ve scored if they got the ball back with 1.4 or 1.7 seconds left, whatever it was. It didn’t even both me as much that Rutgers possibly lost a game to a blown call. Things happen, bad calls occur all the time. What killed me and still does today, is how blatantly obvious that Justin Brownlee either traveled or stepped out of bounds with time still left on the clock. Mike Rice looked like he was yelling for a hold on the play, which was much more questionable. We’ll never know what thoughts were running through the minds of those refs as the booked it out of there after the final whistle but it was certainly the most cringe worthy memory I have.

Aaron Breitman: In my lifetime, the 2011 Big East Tournament loss, no question. It’s notable for several reasons. I think it has to be the worst officiating blunder in a game that any Rutgers team ever experienced that I’ve ever seen, which is truly something, especially in hoops. Watching the officials walk off the court, Jim Burr, Tim Higgins and Earl Walton, who ultimately were forced to step down for the rest of the tournament, with 1.7 seconds left was scream your eyes out maddening. Whenever any of them have reffed a Rutgers game since, I get upset, especially Higgins. Watching Steve Lavin’s flawless, bouncy hair and jet white shoes walk up for the postgame TV interview with a slimy grin makes me cringe to this day.

The awful call was one of a few down the stretch of that game. It also covered up the fact that Rice made some questionable coaching decisions at the end, especially the halfcourt pass to Biruta (note: yes he was fouled, no you never get that call, especially at the Garden in the Big East Tourney against St. John’s), who was a sitting duck after they started with four seconds at the start of the play. It robbed Rutgers of the chance to walk-off with the victory on St. John’s homecourt, aka the Garden, which would have been back to back nights beating Seton Hall and the Johnnies, which would have been an all-time special moment. Finally it was also a frustrating end to Mike Rice’s first season. The only positive was watching Francesa actually defend Rutgers for the first and last time of his career, which is one of his all-time rants in my opinion.

The Infamous Ending

NOTE: Rutgers also lost two painful NCAA Tournament games in the Sweet Sixteen in 1979 and in the second round in 1983. Those obviously carry more weight over the 2011 loss, but all four of us were a bit too young to be able to give our own personal account. Share your own in the comment section.

How Will Rutgers Defend Shamorie Ponds and Mustapha Heron?

David Anderson: Not well unfortunately. The Rutgers defense has not returned to the level it was at the past two seasons yet overall, but when and if it does, the #1 vulnerability will be to ultra quick guards based on the current roster composition. Ponds reminds me of a lefty, seven inch taller version of Myles Mack as he is crafty, can shoot deep, and can pull up with solid elevation in the mid range. Ponds is a better passer though. RU “will” probably try to faceguard a little bit with Baker and Mathis but play things like they do against every other team.

If I were Coach Pike, I’d play some 2-3 zone to try and use RU’s length to clog up the midrange areas. Of course RU is at heart a man to man defensive operation so I’d rotate as many guys as I could with fresh legs on Ponds. Every time a sub comes into the game at guard (Harper, Mathis, Baker, McConnell, or Kiss), he would pressure Ponds from at least halfcourt if not three quarter. On Heron, I’d use Thiam and Harper at all times for their length to force him to put it on the deck and therefore not get easy catch and shoot opportunities. I’m content to allow Ponds to score points and keep other players from touching it most of the game until sending double teams in potential crunch time.

Dave White: I don’t know how well Rutgers can defend Heron and Ponds with straight up man-to-man defense. FDU and Drexel’s guards were easily getting to the rim during the first two games, so Pikiell has a lot to tighten up with his guard defense. But I also expect Pikiell to throw in some different looks. This is the kind of game—much like at Seton Hall in year one—where Mad Scientist Pikiell can come out to play. I think we will see all kinds of crazy defensive looks. Traps, pressing, and zone. Pikiell knows that St. John’s goes as Ponds goes. Yes, they’re talented and Justin Simon can beat you too, but you have to slow Ponds. Look for Rutgers to give it every possible look and throw the guards of St. John’s off early.

Patrick Mella: For as great as the team has looked offensively, they’ve struggled on the defensive end which was something we heard from Coach Pikiell speak about before the season started. The reality is defense does take longer to develop and for a team so young it’s really not a surprise. Both Ponds and Heron will be a handful to deal with, but don’t forget about Mikey Dixon off the bench. I think I’d stay away from a zone at this point. I don’t think it’s a bad idea, but it demands a lot of discipline from a team that is so young. Geo Baker moves well without the ball, and Issa Thiam has the wingspan to disrupt passing lanes. Like Baker, Peter Kiss does move well defensively but I think most importantly he needs time to gel with the rest of the starters. Force them to take tough shots and please grab some boards down low. Nothing is worse than forcing a tough shot, only to give up an offensive board on a missed shot. Down low, look for the big men to not give up and easy drives into the lane. Look for my man Eugene to take two charges in the game. Calling it now. Let’s go E!!!!

Aaron Breitman: I love Geo and Gene, but Ponds and Heron will be the two most talented players on the RAC floor on Friday night. Rutgers doesn’t have or at least, hasn’t yet found that backcourt defensive stopper that they really need for games of this magnitude. I do think Rutgers needs to use their length and size to clog up driving lanes with help from whoever isn’t guarding these two players. Keep them away from the rim and contest every shot. I think the best perimeter defender for the Scarlet Knights is 6’10” Issa Thiam and it would be interesting to see Pikiell have him mark Heron, even for spurts. Overall, I agree with the two Dave’s that this game warrants some different looks other than straight man to man from the Rutgers defense. I’ll get more into this in a moment.

Can Rutgers Keep Up This Three-Point Shooting?

David Anderson: Yes. The team won’t shoot 50%+ every single game since no one in the history of basketball has done that, however RU has legit shooters. Ron Harper Jr. is a long armed good ballplayer and I take credit for being the first on that bandwagon. Eugene Omoruyi is fast becoming the college version of Draymond Green. At times, opponents will let him shoot and he will convert, but don’t expect him to be lights out. The other side effect is that because defenders can’t cheat in help D, Omoruyi and Baker have a ton more space to get to the hoop. Now that Issa Thiam has a few other moves to counter and demonstrated passing understanding, he should get even more room to chuck. He could always shoot, it was just a matter of him having confidence to fire even with defenders in his area knowing it won’t be blocked. Then by scoring inside, the outside opens up for “normal” shooters like Montez Mathis and Peter Kiss in a positive feedback loop.

Dave White: I believe this team has shooters. Do I think all of them will be this hot all of the time? No. There will be some games where it looks like there is a lid on the basket. But I don’t think we’ll see much of the 1 for 7 games we used to see anymore. The key for Rutgers is to move the ball and knock down the open shot. They won’t make 14 threes on Friday, but if they can make 8, they should be in the game.

Patrick Mella: I think so. Maybe not at this clip but even if it dropped a little, it’d still be a welcomed improvement over previous years. I can’t remember a Rutgers team that has had as many weapons from behind the arc. And I’ll be the first to admit when I heard Eugene Omoruyi had developed a three point game I was highly, highly skeptical. Forget that he had never hit a three before in a game, I wasn’t sold on the idea of him being so far away from the basket, given his rebounding ability. But man, does that stroke look good so far. It’s only two games but if he can incorporate that shot over the course of a full season, you could be talking a guy who gets all-conference honors. Issa Thiam at 6’10’’ can get a shot off even with a hand in his face and Peter Kiss has the swagger and confidence to not hesitate if he gets a good look. Stop them and you’ve still got Montez Mathis and team leader Geo Baker ready to pull the trigger. We’ve seen Rutgers drop bombs against to inferior teams. Friday will be a much better test of whether this team is legit from long range.

Aaron Breitman: Not at this rate, because it’s otherworldly at the moment, but there should be real hope this is a solid team shooting wise. If Rutgers can shoot between 45%-55% from the floor, as well as make 8-10 three’s on most nights, they will be in a lot of games this season and lurking to pull off upsets. The defense must improve, but I don’t think Rutgers has had this many legitimate scoring options on the perimeter since the mid-2000’s when guys like Jerome Coleman, Ricky Shields, and Quincy Douby roamed the arc at the RAC. Let me be clear, this current group has a LONG WAY to go until they reach the level of those three, but I can’t think of a better assortment of shooters since. They have to prove they can shoot well in big games against high major opponents, so this St. John’s contest is a huge test.

Biggest Key To The Game?

David Anderson: Transition defense. During the Drexel game, both teams seemed to have guaranteed points every time they got a turnover or simply out-hustled the opponent on a made basket. Rutgers’s halfcourt defense needs work, but one way to help the cause is by playing better transition defense. Better transition defense not only prevents confidence building easy buckets, it also can reduce the number of mismatches that come with “secondary break” opportunities. Throw in the side effect of long shots leading to long rebounds, this is even more important for a Rutgers team that now shoots 3s. Rutgers has some shot blockers in the half court, but they don’t have a Kadeem Jack or Herve Lamizana to chase down fast breaks and get rejections. Both teams are littered with long wing players who will make halfcourt space hard to come by, so easy buckets will be at a premium. If either team can avoid giving up too many easy points and likely momentum on dunks and open 3’s, they will have a good chance to win.

Dave White: Ponds is going to get his. The key for me is to limit the rest of the Johnnies. Rutgers has to slow Justin Simon, Marvin Clark, and LJ Figeuroa. If they can do that, and keep playing offense and getting open shots, they’ll be in this game. I’m not sure Rutgers wins. There’s a lot of experience talent on the Red Storm. But I do think it will be close. If the student section is full and the arena is loud, it could really help Rutgers.

Patrick Mella: Adaptability. Basketball is very much an ebb and flow type game. I know you could probably say that for other sports but I always thought none more than basketball. Considering the youth of this Rutgers team, the biggest key will be how the team responds to adversity. Whether the Red Storm go on a 15-2 scoring run to start the game, or whether Rutgers struggles shooting the ball over a stretch of time. How this team responds when the shots aren’t falling or how they adjust to defensive breakdowns will be the key to whether or not they win this game. I do actually think Rutgers wins this game though. St. John’s is a talented team, but Rutgers usually plays local teams tough at home and this team has that youthful confidence to play loose. Add what should be a raucous atmosphere and I think Rutgers pulls out a close one.

Aaron Breitman: There is no question that St. John’s is the more talented side, so the biggest key to me is coaching. What can Steve Pikiell come up with to switch things up and force Chris Mullin to have to adjust to? We know there will be multiple lineups used due to the versatility that Pikiell has to work with now on his roster. And based on the first two games, it should be clear that Rutgers is moving towards a Michigan type offense that can mix and match multi-skilled players on the perimeter, making them a matchup nightmare for opponents.

Rutgers has length and size that St. John’s doesn’t, so look for Pikiell to use that to his advantage somehow. On defense, I don’t expect Rutgers to stick to man to man defense the entire game. Will Pikiell implement a box and one or even a triangle and two at times to defend Ponds & Heron? Will they press the Johnnies and look to trap at midcourt? Or Will Pikiell try a 2-3 zone in spots? Also, Pikiell is very good at getting Rutgers good looks off of timeouts, as well as making sure the opponent doesn’t get easy shots off of dead balls. These can make the difference in a close game. Ultimately, Rutgers needs to make shots to win, but I think the coaching matchup between Pikiell and Mullin will be a big factor as well.