We have frequently written about St. John’s this season, but if it isn’t clear from reading our most frequent tempo-free posts, the Red Storm is arguably the nation’s hottest team. Following Tuesday’s second half beat-down (and win) against Butler, the Johnnies are now 8-6 in Big East play — an astounding record considering they started 0-5 — and have won seven out of their last eight games. As we explained in an earlier tempo-free post, an underlying theme of SJU’s rise is their stingy defense, an ability to defend without fouling while also consistently generating steals, but as we will detail below, the Johnnies might have solved their offensive issues within the arc.
A few takeaways from this past week’s games:
Davante Gardner isn’t the best Golden Eagle this season. In an early February loss to St. John’s, Jamil Wilson had the worst game in all three of his Marquette seasons. The senior forward scored just one point on five field goal attempts, and based on how lethargic and simply tentative Wilson looked while on the court, coach Buzz Williams sat Wilson during the entire second half. Since that contest, though, the 6’7″ forward has been on an offensive tear, converting 47% of his twos and 52% of his long-range attempts. It’s no secret the transition of full-time point guard duties to Derrick Wilson has not been smooth, and a casualty of this change is Davante Gardner’s touches; Williams wants at least one paint touch per possession, but Wilson and Golden Eagles’ backcourt have struggled to find Gardner on the block. His usage rate is up (but not by as much as one would’ve expected) this season, and the big hasn’t attempted ten or more shots since the end of January. In their most recent loss, to Creighton, Garnder took only three two-point field goal attempts; since Marquette’s perimeter game is again lacking — for the second straight season, Marquette is taking few threes and isn’t converting that small sample size (less than 30% from deep in Big East play) — so defenses are able sag a bit, packing the paint and force Gardner to catch the ball farther from the bucket than desired. Gardner’s inability to get a touch is why Wilson’s play is crucial if Marquette make a final five-game push. He is the only Eagle capable of creating his own offense – just 47% of his attempted twos are assisted — and he can score from both long and mid-range. Wilson is currently the catalyst for MU’s offense, and if he can continue to create halfcourt spacing and defensive imbalance, it’ll only benefit Gardner and the team’s offensive efficiency.
A simplistic reason for St. John’s rise. We will delve into the team’s surge in a post prior to this weekend’s Villanova game, but one can spot the moment Steve Lavin’s squad turned this season’s corner. Against Seton Hall in late January, the Johnnies made 26 of their 45 two-point attempts, and since then, the team has converted 50 or more percent of their twos in each Big East game and is scoring 1.10 PPP. Through the first five conference contests, St. John’s made an anemic 40% of their shots within the arc, a percentage which has dramatically shifted to 53% during their streak. Even in their first matchup with Creighton, a road loss, SJU made 50% of their twos. John outlined several weeks ago that JaKarr Sampson was the key to solving the team’s then-offensive malaise, and his piece proved prophetic. During the last nine games, Sampson is making 50% of his twos (up from 27.5% at the start of Big East play) and is using a blend of uber-athleticism and refined shooting touch to both get to the basket and convert from mid-range (typically the short corner).
Can opponents take away the 3, and still beat, Creighton? Jay Wright had to alter his defensive strategy when his squad traveled to Omaha this past weekend. The first time the teams met, in mid-January, the Bluejays made 21 threes, and blitzed Nova in the first half. In their second match-up, Wright decided to defend the three-point line, limit CU’s long-range attempts, and force Greg McDermott’s team to beat Nova within the arc, but this altered strategy didn’t work either: Creighton connected on 66% of their twos, and scored 1.46 PPP. Is it possible, then, to take away the three-ball from Creighton and still win? One Big East team has been successful with this gameplan — St. John’s — and it is interesting to see how Lavin’s team stymied CU. Chris Obekpa and Orlando Sanchez typically guarded, and never left the side of, Ethan Wragge; the two never helped, or hedged on screens, and shadowed the big. St. John’s also made a decision to go under screens set for Austin Chatman, Grant Gibbs, and Jahenns Manigat, figuring the team’s first option is to get Doug McDermott a touch and would be less likely to hoist a three — rather than fighting over the screens, SJU defenders were better able to guard the drive. The other key to preventing a Creighton scoring deluge is to pressure the ball. Creighton doesn’t turn the ball over often — only 15.1% of their possessions result in a giveaway — is paramount — in three of the four CU losses, the team has committed double-digit turnovers.