Friday night is fast approaching, which will be the first big game of the young season for the Rutgers men’s basketball team. They’ll host St. John’s at the RAC at 7 p.m. ET as part of the Gavitt Games between the Big East and Big Ten. The game will be shown live on the Big Ten Network. If you live in the tri-state area, consider grabbing one of the last few tickets available if you haven’t already.
We had our hoop first contributors come together this week to answer some questions about this upcoming meeting, as well as past one’s as well. We will also have a full game preview on Friday morning. However, this is a big matchup and I wanted to take a deeper dive on the Johnnies.
In an effort to find out more about Chris Mullin and his program ahead of Friday, I was fortunate to speak with Norman Rose, the editor-in-chief of SB Nation’s St. John’s site, Rumble in the Garden. While Dave White and I appeared on the Rumble’s podcast earlier this week, I wanted to ask Norman some additional questions about this year’s team ahead of Friday’s big game at the RAC. Let’s tip things off here.
AB: St. John’s has shown flashes of being a good team and has also struggled at times so far in the young season. What have been the strengths and weaknesses in the early going and do you think this team will meet NCAA Tourney expectations?
NR: Tourney expectations are a little hard to predict, since the Red Storm are facing their toughest test yet in Rutgers. I think this team should still be on track to be a bubble team/ 9-11 seed squad. The struggles -- scraping by a Bowling Green team -- so far have been in figuring out how to score while also moving the ball, and also in defending the three and imposing chaos.
An interesting aspect of how the Johnnies struggled against Bowling Green was that the struggle wasn’t because the BG big man had a true field day. Demajeo Wiggins was a factor in that the Red Storm game planned around him and didn’t do enough to bother the perimeter shooters in transition at times. That problem may be a problem of bringing more defensive intensity and working the tweaks on the defenses.
AB: Chris Mullin is now in his fourth season and still looking for his first winning campaign. Is this a make or break year for him and do you think he is the long term answer for this program?
NR: I’m on record as saying that I don’t think he will be broken, per se. If it doesn’t work, he can go back to the NBA, the fans will have some regret about his coaching and still revere him as a player.
As far as this coaching experiment? This year is very important. He does need to show that he can bring in the right players, mold them into a team, and get them to execute. On some levels he has done a good job at that, despite the record. On other levels, game management and roster construction have been problematic.
Long-term, perhaps he will stick around and become iconic on the sidelines, but -- and I have no knowledge of plans either way! -- I would doubt it. In my mind, he’s here to provide stability and develop a culture, a sense of basketball “place” that future coaches can build on.
AB: Will this team only go as far as Shamorie Ponds can take them or do you think this will be a more balanced team this season with the improved talent on the roster?
NR: Much more balanced. Ponds is excellent, and has been taking fewer shots. But Mustapha Heron is an attacking force with good balance and a quick release from outside. He’s been impressive.
LJ Figueroa and Mikey Dixon have been as good as advertised. Marvin Clark and Justin Simon are very good.
Against Bowling Green, the Johnnies had four in double figures, with Heron carrying water early and Ponds taking the weight late.
The team can shoot from outside, crash the glass, penetrate, disrupt -- they can be better than they have shown but there are a lot of offensive options on this team, along with long, active defenders. They need to execute better than they did against Bowling Green, but the potential is there.
AB: On Wednesday, it was announced that St. John’s best big man, Sedee Keita, will be out for 4-6 weeks. How will this impact this team and more importantly, Friday’s game against Rutgers?
NR: With Sedee Keita out, expect... well, the team might have looked about the same. Remember that Keita has played 14 of a possible 80 minutes on the floor for St. John’s. He will; be missed, but the team has played without him. And last season, Tariq Owens was an excellent shot blocker, but in half-court sets the Red Storm often sent double teams; Owens weighed about as much as Mustapha Heron, after all. So the Red Storm are used to playing a scrambling defense.
The Johnnies’ strength so far has been in getting a fairly switchable five on the floor, letting Heron and Figueroa and Clark do “well enough” on the glass, and creating shots with ball movement and definitive drives. Expect to see a lot of pressure from the Red Storm, some attacking, a lot of three-pointers.
The concern is mostly on defense. If the Knights are ready and willing to move the ball around, they can exploit St. John’s by sending the ball into the paint, waiting on the double team, and then kicking the ball out to the perimeter and making at least two extra passes; at that point, there should be an uncovered guard who will have a small window to nail a three-point shot.
AB: Perimeter defense has been issue during the Mullin era and the first two games of the season were no different. With Rutgers shooting 26 for 46 for 56.5% from three-point range so far, how do you expect St. John’s to approach this game from a defensive perspective?
NR: Baseball bats.
I hear that gets a player a technical, so instead, I think they will try to take up defense from at least 3/4 court on many sets, using feints and quick hands to disrupt Geo Baker and crew while they have the ball. Expect traps to hurry the Knights.
AB: Who is the x-factor for St. John’s in this game?
LJ Figueroa and Mikey Dixon. Dixon has to show Peter Kiss who the real star at Quinnipiac was, after all, and Figueroa is energetic and everywhere, willing to play different roles on the court.
I know that was two, but I think both of them are factors.
AB: What is your prediction for this game?
NR: Close, hard fought game. Not comfortable with the Johnnies over at the RAC and it could be trouble. Still... I’ll play confident and say St. John’s wins 72-62.
Thanks to Norman for giving such great insight on St. John’s basketball ahead of Friday’s game. You can follow him on twitter here. Make sure to visit Rumble in the Garden, where he and his staff do a great job covering the Johhnies. To read my answers to Norman’s questions about Rutgers, click here.