(photo courtesy: St John's athletics)

Three Thoughts: Villanova 90, St. John’s 72

It felt like déjà vu in the St. John’s locker room.

Last season, the Red Storm started their Big East slate losing their first five games, and entering last night’s contest against Villanova, the Johnnies were coming off two consecutive losses, games in which SJU appeared physically unnerved and offensively stagnant.

The team had to also deal with some personnel drama: Rysheed Jordan didn’t play against Butler, and either missed the game to be with his family after his grandmother’s death, or went on a leave of absence due to ongoing disciplinary issues.

Either way, SJU was pumped to stop their Big East skid, and led 35-34 at halftime. D’Angelo Harrison played those initial 20 minutes as if the game determined St. John’s NCAA tournament fate, scoring 16 points on an array of pull-ups, lay-ups, and long threes.

However, the Wildcats gradually, and then emphatically, wore down the Red Storm, scoring 56 points in the second half, and the final score, 90-72, dropped SJU to 0-3 in Big East play.

“We talked about [déjà vu] in the locker room,” said SJU coach Steve Lavin after the game. “We are playing really good teams now, and there are no gimmes. The schedule clearly comes our way in February, but we need to be productive enough in January.”

Here are several takeaways from Tuesday night’s game:

1. D’Angelo Harrison has a legitimate case for Big East player of the year

Other than Providence’s LaDontae Henton and maybe Sterling Gibbs of Seton Hall, there isn’t a better candidate for the Big East’s player of the year honor than the SJU senior guard. He has been the most exciting offensive player in conference play, a guard playing some of the most efficient basketball in his college career.

Harrison has scored 20 or more points in eight of the past nine games, and against Villanova, he dropped 26. Not only does Harrison take the majority of SJU’s shots when he is on the floor, his offensive rating – 1.20 – is unreal for a player who shoulders the Red Storm’s scoring each game. Harrison has never consistently been a great three-point shooter, and while that remains the case in 2015 (33%), he is a fantastic streak shooter, someone who feeds off the crowd’s energy and knows when he has to make a shot. What is most impressive about Harrison is how he tweaked his game in his final season. As a junior, the guard used to get too deep in the paint and then either draw the foul or, more likely, force an off-balanced shot. He has since eliminated those ineffective attempts at the rim, and is using his ability to slither and shimmy past defenders to create space for either a pull up or a floater. According to Hoop-Math.com, 42% of Harrison’s attempts are two-point field goals, and the guard is connecting on nearly 50% of those shots (which also leads the squad). Harrison tormented the Nova guards with superb body control – there is no one better than Harrison at stopping on a dime, letting the defender slide past him, and then stepping through for a soft tear drop jumper – and even with a right knee contusion suffered before halftime, an injury that clearly bother Harrison throughout the final 20 minutes, he kept SJU close by creating contact with defenders to get to the free throw line.

Harrison is undoubtedly the best player in NYC, and regardless of St. John’s postseason endeavors, he has so far been Big East’s best player in 2015.

2. Lack of depth will be the Red Storm’s bugbear

This was evident even before the season began, but it was thought the lack of depth could be mitigated by a small lineup, one in which Sir’Dominic Pointer played the ‘5’.

However, Villanova coach Jay Wright has mastered the art of lineup manipulation, and when foul trouble began to beset the Johnnies – Pointer fouled out, and fouls kept Chris Obekpa tethered to the bench for stretches – Nova ably took advantage. “A team like Villanova exposes your chinks and vulnerabilities,” Lavin said. “They were able to get into the lane off the dribble drive, and scored at the rim and in the paint.”

St. John’s really only has six available players, and other than Rysheed Jordan, there isn’t anyone coming off the bench that can either help the team offensively or spell the frontcourt. Forwards Christian Jones and Joey DeLaRosa both played against the Wildcats, but neither are ready to contribute in any capacity other than to hustle after 50-50 balls. As Lavin said in the post-game press conference, “[Joey and Christian] continue to show us in practice some promise which gives you confidence to put them in the games … but right away, it seems like things don’t go well, and then you put those other guys back in.”

3. St. John’s needs to rebuild its defense

1.26. That’s how many points per possession St. John’s has allowed in Big East play. When you delve further into the defensive numbers, it gets worse. The Johnnies are forcing a turnover on just 16% of their defensive possessions – last in conference play – and allowing opponents to grab 40% of their misses – also last in the league.

The underlying causes for this severe defensive lapse were evident against Villanova. SJU is at their best in a man defense. The team forces more turnovers, can be more active in help defense, and crashes the glass with greater ease, which of course spurs their transition offense. Without any real depth, though, St. John’s has to alternate between man and their 2-3 zone, and when fouls become an issue, they almost exclusively have to play zone, which at the moment is pretty porous.

During the second half, Villanova scored a whopping 1.57 ppp, and while a majority of those were layups made against the Johnnies’ press, it illustrates how easily VU was able to decimate both the zone and man.

Villanova completely understood the meaning behind SJU’s defensive shifts. When the Red Storm were in zone, the Wildcats were easily able to find either JayVaughn Pinkston or Daniel Ochefu in the high post, who then made cross-court passes to keep the defense moving and susceptible to gaps. When in man, Ochefu would set a screen, bringing Obekpa to the perimeter, and then the guards would attack off the bounce, and for all their athleticism, SJU’s guards aren’t nearly as quick as Dylan Ennis and Ryan Arcidiacono. Nearly 50% of Nova’s attempts last night were at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com, and the team ably used the bucket to shield themselves from Obekpa’s wingspan, making 70% of those shots.

St. John’s underwent a similar transformation in 2014 after their winless conference start, and while this year’s team is better offensively, Lavin needs to make some changes to his defensive gameplan.

4. Daniel Ochefu is the Big East’s most improved player.

The 6’11” junior was Villanova’s defensive anchor a year ago, and while he continues to be a stout force on that side of the ball, Ochefu has greatly expanded his offensive repertoire. The big is making 70% of his twos during Villanova’s three Big East games, and while he isn’t taking a high percentage of shots (around 13%), nearly every attempt is around the rim. “Ochefu was a presence inside tonight,” said Wright. “He works really hard in practice, and keeps improving every day. He had a career high at Seton Hall, and when he came to practice the next day, he just wanted to get better.”

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