Three Questions: St. John’s and Seton Hall

The Big East holds their first post-realignment media day today, an event usually held on Central Park South that now takes place at Chelsea Piers. While a fair number of the familiar faces will be missed, from Jim Boeheim to Jamie Dixon, the new-look conference still holds a significant amount of the local college spotlight.

St. John’s hasn’t been mentioned as a favorite for the Big East regular season title, but the Red Storm have the most amount of returning talent on the roster and have the potential to spend much of January and February in the conference’s upper echelon. Much of the anticipation surrounding Seton Hall centers around the team’s stellar 2014 recruiting class, but Kevin Willard’s group is finally healthy and possesses the Big East’s best all-around player. In order to better portend what may transpire with both the Johnnies and the Pirates in 2013-14, here are the three questions that are crucial to the success of each squad.

Seton Hall
Who scores other than Fuquan Edwin?

Now entering his final college season, Fuquan Edwin, in my opinion, is the most valuable in the Big East — no other player means more to his squad than the 6’6″ wing. Not only did Edwin lead the Pirates in scoring (16.5 ppg) but his points were built on efficient shooting — 46% from two and 41% from beyond the arc — and he was more aggressive as the offense’s primary option, using screens more frequently while then getting into the lane and drawing nearly two more fouls per 40 minutes. Continuing with the accolades, Edwin is also the conference’s most-effective on-ball defender. Seton Hall should be better than their 2013 record (3-15) indicated — Aaron Cosby and Kyle Smyth are the only two significant players missing from the 2014 roster — but a trio of Pirates need to inherit some of the scoring burden to ensure that record rises. There are two immediate options, one being Eugene Teague, a 6’9″ forward whose improved offseason conditioning — he lost nearly thirty pounds — will allow him to better finish on the block and second-chance possessions (Teague grabbed 12% of Seton Hall’s misses). The other is Patrik Auda, a big who redshirted last season and can stretch the floor and rarely turns the ball over. The key, though, is Brandon Mobley; the junior was oft-injured during Big East play, but his playing style — a wing who can shoot the three but is most effective working without the ball in the paint — complements the offensive skills Edwin, Teague, and the other Pirates bring to the court.

Will Seton Hall continue to rely on threes?
In 2012, roughly 30% of Seton Hall’s points came from three-pointers, but that percentage rose drastically last year (37%, which ranked thirteenth in the nation), and while the Hall were suited to bomb away from beyond the arc — the team made 36.7% of their attempts — they struggled to score when teams failed to stray from the three-point line (or when SHU had an off game). The now departed Smyth and Cosby combined to shoot 38% from three, and since his bigs saw more of the trainer than they did their coach, Willard was forced to depend on long-range shooting. The Hall’s healthy frontcourt means Willard’s offensive gameplan should shift in 2014 as Willard reengineers the offense to cater the Hall’s young true points (Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs) while also emphasizing post touches for a svelte Teague and perhaps utilizing more on pick and rolls involving the team’s multiple mobile bigs.

Can the extra inches help the defense?
The most interesting difference between the 2012 and 2013 Seton Hall squads is the disparity in defensive efficiency. While the ’12 team held Big East opponents under one point per possession, the ’13 Pirates struggled mightily to keep points off the board, allowing 1.07 OPPP (one of the conference’s worst rates). Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore were the only Pirates whose eligibility expired in last spring, so what happened? Theodore had a knack for aggressively pressuring ball-handler, and as a tandem, Theodore and Edwin generated countless steals. However, no one filled Theodore’s void and SHU was much less tenacious on the perimeter, which failed to hide the team’s real weakness; their lack of interior size meant allowing countless additional possessions. When any team isn’t forcing turnovers and giving up offensive boards, the OPPP is going to sky-rocket. Edwin will still fly around the court, picking both his man’s pocket while also causing turnovers with his help defense, but SHU’s defensive turnaround starts with the frontcourt, specifically the return of Mobley, Auda, Teague, and a now bulky Aaron Geramipoor.

St. John’s
What is Chris Obekpa’s impact in year two?
Judging by the minutes Steve Lavin doled out during St. John’s European trip, sophomore Chris Obekpa may come off the bench in 2013-14. While some may consider such a move shocking — how can a player, who blocked over 15% of opponents’ attempts, sit? — Obekpa was extremely limited on offense a year ago. The 6’9″ Obekpa had the lowest offensive rating of any Johnny that used more than 50 percent of the team’s minutes, and his range was essentially the space immediately surrounding the hoop. His main offseason goal had to center around developing any sort of post offense. St. John’s lacked a player capable of finishing on the block in 2013, and while Orlando Sanchez and God’sgift Achiuwa both have that potential to provide that balance, Obekpa needs at least one low-post counter move. Even if he continues to struggle scoring against Big East frontcourts, Lavin will still play him — he provides an instant impact on defense — but since SJU’s offense was truly stagnant in 2013, Obekpa needs to provide (and not just take away) points.

How many minutes will Rysheed Jordan use?
The addition of Rysheed Jordan allows Steve Lavin an option he has not had since he landed that monster recruiting class in 2011: he can now play both Jamal Branch and D’Angelo Harrison off the ball. Jordan’s supreme athleticism means he can go away from SJU screens and still get to the rim. Jordan’s game is built for north to south penetration, and all five sets of eyeballs will focus on Jordan when he steps on to the court (according to ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla, Jordan is “…good enough to start yesterday.” While both juniors have various isolation moves, and can create their own offense, they often need a pick to turn the corner on a defender, while Jordan’s presence will draw defenders from both guards (and the other Johnnies) and create openings that didn’t exist a year ago.

Does St. John’s need JaKarr Sampson to take jumpshots?
In late August, I wondered whether St. John’s would continue to take a high volume of two-point field goals — only one other DI team depended as heavily on generating offense off twos as SJU, and the Red Storm attempted 269 shots from between 17 feet and the three-point line (and made just 35% of those shots). ESPN’s John Gasaway recently wondered the same question, and asked Lavin if his players would continue to attempt those high-risk (but low-benefit) shots? According to Lavin, “The numbers that you’re looking at? They’re going to change … [and] it will be because we finally have some balance, including a perimeter attack … finishing at the rim was a challenge for our guys, and so was perimeter shooting, as you’ve indicated. Numbers aren’t going to drive or dictate everything you do, but they sure are a reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of your team. That’s what you saw with us last year.” What is intriguing about Lavin’s answer is that Sampson, when I spoke with him a few weeks ago, was fairly certain he’ll expand his jump-shooting repertoire this season. “I improved my range a lot this year and you’ll definitely see me make a lot more threes this year,” he said, adding that his main focus is still attacking the rim off the bounce. The arrival of Sanchez (and the return of Achiuwa) means Sampson will likely be used more as a 3 (he was most often placed at the 4 a year ago), so the opportunity is there for Sampson to take more two-point jump shots, but is that needed? Sampson and Jordan are the two Johnnies best able to get to the rim and finish, and with the potential openings Jordan (and Max Hooper) can create, Lavin needs Sampson to focus on converting around the bucket and getting to the free throw line.

Matt Giles is a reporter for New York Magazine and has contributed to College Basketball Prospectus 2012-13, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, the New York Times, BuzzFeed, and Salon. You can follow Matt on Twitter @HudsonGiles.

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