I've been hard on Norm Roberts in this space, though many St. John's fans don't think I've been hard enough on the fourth-year coach. While the Red Storm's offense under Roberts has always been something out of the Neolithic Era, I'd found the defense solid and the effort unquestioned.
That was the case again in St. John's Big East opener at the Carrier Dome against Syracuse. The Orange have one of the best offenses in the Big East, but managed just more than a point per possession. Meanwhile, the Red Storm -- not exactly known for their size and girth -- outrebounded Syracuse and hustled all over the floor. But the Johnnies just couldn't make enough shots to win, which ended in a 76-70 decision for the Orange.
Larry Wright and Anthony Mason hit a shot here and there, but the team shot just 5-of-23 from deep against Syracuse's 2-3 zone, this despite the Orange starting two smaller players at the top of the zone. Eugene Lawrence (0-for-5 from deep) has turned ice cold since leaving Hawaii and Paris Horne (1-for-3, three turnovers) didn't add much off the bench. Watching the game, you saw the intensity in the faces of players on both teams, especially St. John's as they narrowed the deficit in the second half. But every time a big shot would have pulled SJU even or made it a one-possession game, the shot would just miss. Eugene Lawrence open from the wing -- off the front rim. Anthony Mason open in the corner -- clank. Malik Boothe wide open -- clank. Larry Wright with the chance to make it close -- in and out. It wasn't like St. John's was putting up a ton of contested threes -- these were shots that are makeable, but, as SJU proved, eminently missable as well.
This has been the story since Roberts arrived. In his first three years, St. John's finished 11th of 12, 15th of 16 and 14th of 16 in offensive efficiency among Big East teams. This year, the Johnnies sit 15th in the conference. This team just doesn't have many talented offensive players. That's why, despite the defense being eighth, St. John's is still a bottom quartile team, because it remains the club who couldn't shoot straight.
From Syracuse's perspective, the win does little to assuage the doubt among Orange backers that this team is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for a second straight March. SU allowed 14 offensive rebounds of St. John's misses, which kept SJU hanging around. Donte' Greene got into foul trouble with no one to spell him. In fact, despite Syracuse committing six fewer fouls than St. John's, the Orange had three players with four fouls thanks to the shallow bench. The starters beyond Greene played huge minutes because there's little left on the bench whom Jim Boeheim trusts. The good news is that Syracuse again shot well (51.8 eFG) against a St. John's team whose best trait is field-goal defense. This team sure has a lot of answers, especially on offense, but plenty of questions remain, too.
(Mike Waters of the Syracuse Post-Standard will be on BigEastCast tonight to discuss the Orange. The podcast should be ready for listening either late Thursday night or early Friday.)
South Florida 68, Rutgers 45: For about 28 minutes, it looked like the Bulls were going to allow Fred Hill's Scarlet Knights to hang around and maybe even pull off a demoralizing win. But, with the score 38-36 and USF struggling to score, Dominique Jones began to take over. Chris Howard was sidelined with his fourth foul and Jones took over point guard duties. He created for himself and teammates, as Orane Chin (nine points on 4-of-6 shooting), Jesus Verdejo (nine points, three assists) and big man Kentrell Gransberry (20 points, 17 rebounds) were the beneficiaries of his creativity. Jones only tallied one official assist, but his ability to draw defenders and got a solid Rutgers defense out of sorts led to an extended run. Jones also created for himself, chipping in with a game-high 24 on 9-of-12 shooting. The Bulls outscored Rutgers 30-9 over the remainder of the game to turn a taut contest into a laugher.
For Rutgers, along with the defensive breakdowns, the offense went through its normal droughts in the second half -- not that the 26 points in the first half had the smell of a scoring juggernaut. JR Inman (4-for-13) couldn't hit a thing, and Rutgers collectively missed seven of its eight free-throws. Teams like Rutgers and St. John's -- the two worst offensive teams in the Big East -- can only depend on their defense to keep their opponents scoring at frosty rates for so long. Eventually a team's going to go on a run, and when USF went on its run, Rutgers had no response. The loss of Corey Chandler, a truly talented offensive player, will make it very hard for the Knights to win a Big East game until he returns.
Pittsburgh 96, Lafayette 75: The big story from this game, other than the fact that Pittsburgh trailed for most of the first half, is that Keith Benjamin emerged as the first potential answer to the questions left by Mike Cook and Levance Fields' injuries. He scored 20 points (7-of-9 shooting) and had five assists in 32 minutes. The senior finally stepped up, and when his team needed him most. Another good sign was Ronald Ramon's three made threes after the sharpshooter had struggled of late with the bum shoulder. Tyrell Biggs' large night (19 points, four rebounds, two blocks) should be primarily due to the Leopards' small stature, but perhaps he's yet another answer on this deep team. We'll find out when the Panthers travel to Philly to play Villanova on Sunday.
Thursday night's action:
West Virginia at Notre Dame (7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2): In what is, to me, the most intriguing matchup of the night, two teams who have impressed, but who boast few quality wins, meet at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Ind. This is an important game for each to get off to a positive start in conference, and both teams should feel confident about their chances. West Virginia was pushed around a bit by the brawny and athletic Oklahoma Sooners in the Mountaineers' double-overtime loss on Saturday, but Notre Dame doesn't have the type of athletes that OU does. On the other hand, the Irish are a far more skilled offensive team than Oklahoma with perhaps the best-balanced starting five in the league. Ryan Ayers and Kyle McAlarney can rain from deep, Tory Jackson is the creator, and Rob Kurz and Luke Harangody work in tandem to devastate inside. If West Virginia cannot control Kurz and Harangody on the boards, it could be a tough Big East opener for Bob Huggins. Let's also keep in mind that Notre Dame hasn't lost at Joyce since Feb. 25, 2006. I'll take the Irish.
Connecticut at Seton Hall (7:00 p.m. ET, SNY): It's time to see if Connecticut is any good. A good UConn team goes into the Prudential Center and finds a way to win with breathing room against a small, poor-shooting Seton Hall team. Jeff Adrien, Hasheem Thabeet and Stanley Robinson should have their way inside against Bobby Gonzalez's club. Seton Hall's best bet is for Eugene Harvey and Brian Laing to keep driving to the rim and try to get the big men in foul trouble. It also wouldn't hurt if Jamar Nutter or Jeremy Hazell or anyone else could hit a few shots from outside. Seton Hall will need to force a lot of turnovers to stay in this game. Connecticut, as a team, isn't prone to giveaways, but Jerome Dyson can be reckless. Connecticut's the pick.
Villanova at DePaul (9:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2): Everything seems to set up for a nice road win in the opener for the Wildcats. DePaul hasn't beaten a good team all season, and the Blue Demons play just about the worst defense in the conference (15th in efficiency). But DePaul has weapons, and the Wildcats' defense has been suspect this season. Draelon Burns, Mac Koshwal, Dar Tucker and Karron Clarke have enough explosiveness among them to give Villanova trouble. Dante Cunningham is a superb defender, but he could have trouble with Koshwal's superior athleticism. If DePaul makes a lot of shots and Villanova misses a few more than normal, then this'll be an upset. Still, I like Villanova, but close.
Providence at Marquette (9:00 p.m. ET, SNY): The Friars enter the Bradley Center to face the Golden Eagles' stock of guards without a point guard of their own. Sharaud Curry remains out with his broken foot, and backup Dwain Williams is sidelined with a variety of maladies. That puts a lot of pressure on Weyinmi Efejuku and forward Geoff McDermott to handle the pressure that Jerel McNeal, Dominic James, et al., provide. On the other hand, a large Providence lineup -- one that features McDermott, Jamine Petersen and Randall Hanke -- might give Marquette's defense fits if the Friars can get into their sets. For Providence to pull off the upset, it will need to 1) hold on to the ball, 2) control the defensive glass -- where Marquette often kills opponents -- and 3) hope that Marquette has an off shooting night. To shut down the MU shooter, Providence must close out on wing Dan Fitzgerald and backup guards David Cubillan and Maurice Acker -- the first two are back from injury and pose Marquette's primary outside shooting threats. Those three have combined for one more 3-pointer made than the rest of the team, despite 21 fewer attempts. Marquette by nine sounds about right.