The obvious storyline for the game is the return of former UCLA coach Steve Lavin to Westwood. Lavin's Red Storm (I hate that name. Having grown up around New York City and doing so in the Lou Carneseca, Chris Mullin, Bill Wennington, Walter Berry heydays, they will always be the Redmen to me) come into the game with a record of 13-8 and a very high RPI as well as being a member of the Big East, so a victory in this game will do UCLA's NCAA Tournament resume a great deal of good. First, though, the Bruins need to get past the fact that Lavin will be on the other bench. Although none of the current Bruins were past 7th grade the last time Lavin coached at Pauley, the team members will certainly hear all they can tolerate regarding Lavin's return. It is imperative for the Bruins to recognize that the issue of Lavin's return is one for the fans, maybe even one for Coach Ben Howland, but not one for them. The Bruins need to realize that this game is all about playing a solid high-major team that can beat the Bruins soundly if they don't come ready to play. The game comes down to the old adage about the Bruins : will UCLA play focused and intense, especially on the defensive end?
St. John's has played one of the most difficult schedules in the nation up to this point. Obviously, playing in arguably the best and deepest conference in the country helps, as does the fact that the red Storm played a pretty tough non-conference schedule. That non-conference schedule was punctuated by last Sunday's emphatic victory over Duke in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated. However, St. John's has also suffered defeats to St. Bonaventure (a bad team) and Fordham (one of the worst teams in Division 1 this season). While many fans will say this is exactly what happened to UCLA when Lavin coached in Westwood -- lose to mediocre competition but get up for the big-name teams -- the reality is that St. John's isn't used to winning. The Red Storm hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2002 and their last coach, Norm Roberts, was fired with a record of 81-101. Learning how to win can be more difficult than keeping up a tradition of winning (just ask the Bruins). While there may be something to the argument that Lavin's ability to prepare his team's a certain way help lead to unexpected losses, the bottom line is to remember that for the players this game is not about Steve Lavin.
The Red Storm have a team eerily similar to Washington's, even though they nowhere near as good as Washington on offense and better defensively. It starts with their senior lead guard (point guard would not be the proper use of the term in this instance) Dwight Hardy (6'2" 196 lbs.), who is both strong and quick. Hardy is the Johnnies' leading scorer at 15 PPG and free throw shooter (87% per game). He may lead the team in turnovers (barely) but that's because the ball's in his hands so much. Think about this: Hardy has attempted 107 three-point shots on the season. The next highest on the Johnnies is 33. Shut down Hardy and shut down the St. John's offense. Because Hardy is so important to the fortunes of St. John's on the offensive end, expect Malcolm Lee to guard him. The thing about Hardy is he doesn't need a lot of space to get open. The best way to describe him is slippery. In many ways, if Lee can shut down Hardy it may be close to as impressive an effort as Lee showed against BYU's Jimmer Fredette.
The second guard for the Johnnies is senior Paris Horne (6'3" 189 lbs.). In many ways, except for the shooting, Horne and Hardy, as well as the other St. John's guards who get minutes, are virtually interchangeable. There is nothing statistically that sets them apart and for that reason and after watching him several times, Horne is the glue guy for the Red Storm. He is the best three-point shooter on the team at 39% and while he isn't outstanding at any one facet of the game, he is pretty good at all of them. It will be interesting to see who Lavin puts Horne on defensively as he isn't as quick as Lazeric Jones but he is stronger than him while he isn't as strong as Malcolm Lee and certainly not as long but he may have a slight quickness advantage there.
The wing position highlights the player who may be the most important for St. John's, senior D.J. Kennedy. He is the third-leading scorer on the team at 10.3 PPG and the leading rebounder at 5.6 RPG. However, what makes him most important to Lavin and St. John's is the fact that he is unquestionably the team's defensive stopper. He leads the team in steals and has been great on the defensive glass. In the win against Duke he was the man primarily responsible for shutting down Duke's vaunted Kyle Singler in the first half. By the time Singler got into any kind of a rhythm the game was, for all intents and purposes, over. Kennedy has 89 defensive boards on the year, which is more than all but two of his teammates have in combined rebounds. It should be an interesting match-up with Kennedy on Tyler Honeycutt and vice versa. These two players know how to board and they just may cancel each other out. That won't help St. John's. They need Kennedy to own the boards. When he doesn't St. John's loses.
What little true post presence St. John's has is provided by seniors Justin Brownlee (6'7" 219 lbs.) and Justin Burell (6'8" 244 lbs.). Neither is a traditional post in that they would prefer taking their defender off the dribble rather than play with their back to the basket. They are athletic with Brownlee relying on that athleticism to be successful. Burrell does have a bit of a traditional post game. Combined they average over 20 PPG and over 10 RPG which, if taken as one position, would be excellent. The problem is that they are often on the court together so their numbers would be comparable to comparing Reeves Nelson's and Josh Smith's combined numbers. Brownlee is somewhat of a three-point threat while Burrell hasn't even attempted a three this season. Whenever Burrell and Smith are in the game together Smith should be guarding Burrell without exception.
Freshman Dwayne Polee (6'7" 193 lbs.), a superior leaper from Los Angeles, started earlier in the season, lost his starting spot and is now starting again. Polee would probably be leading the team in rebounding if he played comparable minutes to some of the starters, but that's about the only thing that's gone well for him. His field goal shooting is poor (43%), but some of that is because his three-point shooting percentage is a horrific at 24%. His attitude and demeanor have been questionable at times and he simply looks like a frosh that is in over his head at times. He is second on the team in blocks with 12. This is a homecoming game for Polee and he will either play really well or be too amped for the game. The educated guess is that it will be the latter as Polee hasn't yet showed the maturity to handle new situations like the one he'll be presented with on Saturday.
Two diminutive guards, senior Malik Boothe (5'9" 184 lbs.) and sophomore Malik Stith (5'11" 184 lbs. ) provide backcourt depth but only play to spell the regulars. Boothe plays more minutes and did start 11 games for the Johnnies.
The lone frontcourt post reserve is Sean Evans (6'8" 258 lbs.) but he only plays about 7-8 MPG. Lavin really has trimmed his rotation to six players who get significant minutes.
College basketball really is all about match-ups. St. John's just doesn't shoot the ball well from the outside, but they can get to the rack. That's why they were able to hammer Duke last weekend. Surely Duke would win the vast majority of games with the Red Storm if they played 20 times, but on Sunday Duke shot horribly from the outside and their standard high-intensity ball pressure and ball-denial defense played right into the Johnnies' hands as St. John's scored on back cuts and by simply beating their man in the lane. They also used long rebounds from the threes that Duke missed to initiate odd-man breaks up the floor for easy transition baskets.
UCLA's primary man defense is ball pressure with lane denial. When the Bruins do it well, as against USC last Wednesday, they can be a tough team to score against. The point is that UCLA's base defense and Duke's are very different even though they are both man defenses. Duke plays better defense than UCLA most of the time but their style was the perfect match-up for St. John's to be successful against. St. John's really does run its offense through what Hardy can get by driving against his man. Duke had no one that can on-ball defend like Malcolm Lee and thus Hardy and the other St. John's wings and guards got to the paint fairly easily. For UCLA to be successful the Bruin guards, specifically Lee, will have to keep their respective player in front of them.
St. John's played almost exclusively zone against Duke and while they held Duke to a poor shooting percentage in the first half it was really due more to the fact that Duke missed shots. Duke had many open looks and just missed them. Duke won't usually miss that many open looks but the fact that Duke has very little in terms of an inside game meant that Duke couldn't simply pound the ball down low in order to offset their cold shooting. In fact, St. John's has real issues regardless of the defense they play when they face teams with big low-post players. The Bruins are going to face a zone defense. They are also probably going to face full-court pressure for much of the game. The Bruins cannot let the Johnnies speed them up offensively. Beyond that, the Bruins need to pound the ball down low on as many possessions as possible. St. John's simply has no one to match up with Smith. Quite frankly, if Nelson gets the ball in the low post consistently, the Johnnies will have trouble stopping him, too.
St. John's is not a good perimeter shooting team. They shoot 31% from beyond the arc. They made an inordinate number of three-point shots against the Blue Devils. Honestly, the best way to play the Red Storm is to play a zone. For example, Syracuse crushed St. John's at Madison Square Garden because the Johnnies couldn't shoot well outside the paint. However, if Howland is going to insist on playing man defense (and he will) then the style that he employs is the best to shut down the St. John's inside game.
St. John's is also a much different team at home than on the road. Although they defeated both West Virginia and Providence on the road, the Johnnies have been simply hammered on the road in four of their other five true road contests with the fifth loss being to Fordham, a team with an RPI of 250 and that's with the win over St. John's.
Even though it's a morning tip at Pauley, expect the crowd, especially the students, to be there for this one. The school newspaper has Lavin on the Friday cover. It is safe to assume that Lavin is going to face a very hostile crowd. The crowed being uber-focused on Lavin could possibly take some pressure off the St. John's players. However, the Red Storm don't like hostile environments. Without getting too stat-happy, their shooting percentage drops precipitously, their turnovers go up and they get killed on the boards, which is a battle they generally lose anyway.
Tracy Pierson predicted this to be a win…the Bruins have the homecourt advantage, the crowd will be fired up, and the match-ups favor the Bruins on both ends of the floor. This may sound like some homer-ism, but really, if the same UCLA team that played on Wednesday shows up on Saturday morning then the Bruins win by 20+. However, the morning start will probably affect the Bruins a bit more than the Johnnies; for them it will be 1 PM on their body clocks. That should account for a bit of lethargy on the part of the Bruins and mitigate the score just a bit. However, St. John's, despite the win over Duke, isn't really a top team. They are very home court-oriented and play very up and down. They certainly have an inflated RPI. They should be respected for the conference they play in, but still, they struggle on the road in the Big East.
Besides, there's a good chance the Bruins will play at a magical level…
St. John's 59