SCOUTING THE RED STORM
Playing without a true center or a dominating big man, St. John's has relied on guards and swingmen through much of the 2011-12 season. Poor perimeter shooting, coupled with a rebounding deficit, has made it hard for the Red Storm to score, which has put pressure on the defense. The Johnnies don't handle the ball particularly well, either, and that combination of deficiencies has doomed them to several league losses.
Freshman guards Phil Green and D'Angelo Harrison run things in the backcourt. Harrison shoulders the scoring load with 15.3 points per game, while Green sets up the offense as the playmaker. Harrison has taken more than twice as many shots from three-point range as any other Johnnie, hitting 32.7% of his tries. He's excellent from the free throw line (81.7%) so WVU needs to play him straight up and avoid fouling him if possible. Green, after a rough start, has improved his assist to turnover ratio and is averaging 2.6 assists per outing.
St. John's uses a pair of swingmen, Moe Harkless and Sir'Dominic Pointer, to create some match-up problems for foes. Harkless (6-8) leads the team in scoring at 15.6 points per game, and is also the squad's top rebounder with 8.3 per outing. He's the team's second best shooter from the field, and also leads the squad in blocks and is second in steals. Pointer plays on the inside, and adds a steady 6.8 points and 4.9 rebounds per outing.
The fifth starter, God'sgift Achiuwa, averages 11.1 points and 6.4 rebounds, and is the team's best option for scoring in close. He is tied for third on the squad in shots attempted, and should get more chances on a team that shoots just 42% from the field.
The bench is thin for the Red Storm, with Amir Garrett and Malik Stith providing the bulk of backup support. Stith is the primary guard sub, averaging 2.8 points in 15 minutes of action per game, while Garrett, who became eligible on Dec. 21, adds 4.3 points and 2.7 rebounds while subbing at the forward spot.
Yes, West Virginia is favored to take home its sixth league victory in this game -- but it's just that sort of thinking that can tag a team with an unexpected loss.
Madison Square Garden
WVU 15-5, 5-2
SJ 8-11 2-6
WVU - 11
SJ - 162
The road contest also provides an opportunity for several Mountaineers to show that they can continue to expand their games. At the point, Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne have shown flashes of getting to the basket off the dribble. That's something they need to continue to develop and nurture, in order to provide another means of generating offense. They don't need to force the action, but do need to take advantage of gaps in the defense to drive the ball and create shot opportunities. Aaron Brown has shown the ability to add instant offense to WVU's arsenal, but must continue to improve defensively if he is to stay on the floor for more than short stretches. Kevin Noreen also needs to play with the aggressive mindset he had against Marshall.
This is a game in which West Virginia's pressure defense and new emphasis on transition play could have a big effect. St. John's is not good at protecting the ball (266 turnovers vs. 153 steals) and it doesn't rebound it particularly well either. WVU will look to get some easy baskets off steals and with its transition game. If it can do so, it could quiet what is often a noisy Garden crowd and earn another important league win.
St. John's has been facing adversity throughout the season. In addition to the absence of head coach Steve Lavin, who is sitting out games and practices while recovering from cancer surgery, the Red Storm lost a player who was having an early impact in the program. Guard Nurideen Lindsey transferred to Rider after a good start with the Red Storm, in which he averaged 11.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists in nine games.
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West Virginia has failed to grab at least 11 offensive rebounds in just three games this year. ORU (seven) Miami (six) and Rutgers (nine) are the only teams to keep the Mountaineers below the double-digit mark.
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Both teams have tough foes up next. WVU travels to Syracuse, while St. John's heads south to play Duke. It's the 14th consecutive year that the Johnnies will face the Blue Devils.
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While assistant coach Mike Dunlap has taken on most of the head coaching responsibilities in Lavin's absence, the Red Storm has also greatly benefited from the presence of Gene Keady. The former Purdue head coach is serving as a special assistant and advisor to the program, and there's little doubt his wealth of experience is helping the Red Storm weather a difficult stretch.