Norman from the fantastic St. John’s blog Rumble in the Garden reached out to me and Friar Frenzy, who writes a regular Friday column on Friarblog, for a Q&A session heading into tomorrow night’s game. His answers to my questions are below. What I found most interesting in his answers is the apparent lukewarm feeling St. John’s fans have about a team with NCAA Tournament hopes, especially in contrast to Friar fans being thrilled with PC starting to turn the corner this year.
Rumble in the Garden is worth a long look if you want to learn more about the Red Storm heading into this one.
1. What’s the feeling been in regards to this St. John’s team? They looked like a sure-fire NCAA team after that winning streak in January, but have had troubles of late. From afar, it just looks like a difficult portion of the schedule.
Can’t get too high, and can’t get too low in a conference with a clear bottom, a clear top, and a muddy middle. My feeling is that this is mostly the St. John’s result I would have expected; the nuance of the team is more bothersome. Unlike the Providence squad, the Johnnies aren’t improving across the board, they’re scuffling. You’re right, they have hit the much harder part of the schedule, but that doesn’t make the results look any less erratic.
Among the fanbase, some seem to have tuned things out once the bubble talk subsided, and others are upset about things like shot selection, which has been a problem all year. Even after the hot stretch – where the Johnnies did a great job of taking care of business – the Red Storm needed a win or two over a more well-regarded team to really earn respect, and they haven’t done it yet.
2. JaKarr Sampson and Chris Obekpa have been two guys Friar fans have kept their eye on as former PC recruits. Can you talk some about their impact from day 1 and where this team would be without them? Is Sampson the BE rookie of the year? How has he compared to Mo Harkless?
I forget that those guys were being recruited by Cooley because, well, apparently PC fans are far more classy than Cincinnati fans, who love to associate Lavin with cheating when they lose out, but think their guy is pristine.
Both players have been integral to the team’s turnaround. Sampson is notable for his offense. While his scoring can get better as he eats “three square meals” and gets stronger (Steve Lavin’s words), he’s become a steady second option for the Johnnies, and is becoming more versatile as the season moves on.
And while he’s different than Harkless, he’s going to win BE Rookie of the Year. Sampson generally takes a lot of shots in the mid-range, whereas Harkless got much closer to the basket and occasionally flashed some advanced moves. Sampson hits jumpers in space or off of a dribble, and hasn’t shown the hints of potential to make a GM think about Sampson for the future. Not yet.
The real improvement that allows St. John’s to move into the middle of the Big East is two-point defense. The team is keeping opponents from being successful deep in the paint and are bothering jump shots as well. Obekpa is a huge part of that with his shot-alteration skills, but JaKarr Sampson’s length also helps get between opponents and the basket.
3. Is D’Angelo Harrison as maddening a player to watch as it seems? He’s absolutely explosive on certain nights and has really struggled on others. How hard is SJU to beat when he’s on, and conversely, how much does the offense struggle when he’s missing?
The offense hurts when he struggles. There was a stretch where it seemed that the offense was learning to play without him being at his best, but those days have faded. St. John’s is beatable whether he’s on or off (as losses to Baylor and Villanova demonstrate) but they’re a lot more competitive when he’s on.
Harrison seems to be curiously less maddening to the fanbase than the other main players on the team, actually. Phil Greene catches message board hell for being a poor shooter who at times takes shots without any other player touching the ball. The other players are far worse in terms of shooting from the outside. The turnovers draw a lot of ire – Jamal Branch’s in particular.
There’s a lot of finger-pointing if you look in the right (or wrong) places.
4. What does St. John’s do well when they are winning, and when do they struggle?
Get out-talented. Here’s the rub – St. John’s has lost one Big East game they were leading at halftime, against Rutgers.
The team hasn’t won a game that they were losing at halftime in Big East play, and some of those deficits were hefty.
When they’re on, the defense forces confusion and three pointers against the zone – and defends inside the arc. The Johnnies get transition baskets, shoot well enough inside the arc, have a scoring drought to let the other team snap at their heels, and find a way to close it out.
In the losses, the Johnnies are playing from behind, which isn’t a strength given their shot selection (lots of long twos, few threes or foul shots). The other team gets transition buckets, frustration mounts.
5. Are St. John’s fans buying into Cooley yet, or are they in wait and see mode like many still seem to be?
St. John’s fans aren’t really noticing Cooley yet. But they will once they realize the Friars have really gotten better this season.
6. Rysheed Jordan going to end up playing in MSG? He just did a number on our guy Brandon Austin.
Hard to predict Rysheed Jordan’s moves. Every pundit has a different answer, and Jordan seems to change like the wind on the plains. Home has an allure. But St. John’s has been sending the full court press after him to snare the guard. Despite what some think, there is room for him even after Orlando Sanchez was declared eligible.
7. What teams do you want to avoid in the Big East Tournament if at all possible? Let’s say maybe one or two from the top five and then a sleeper or two.
Georgetown. Not just because they’re excellent, but because they are long all over (I should rephrase that…) and that bothers the Johnnies. They game planned Harrison very well, are disciplined, and just carved up St. John’s in their two meetings this season.
Other than that, for St. John’s sake I would worry about all of the teams higher than the Johnnies in the standings. St. John’s needs more to knock those teams off.
As far as sleepers, Providence is probably my only one. Maybe Villanova.
8. Do you think St. John’s fans will be happy come Selection Sunday?
No. Not at all. But they should be happier; a flawed team improved. They need some more help, more maturity, and some way of simply shooting better, but there is athletic talent there.