Interview and UCLA vs. St. John's Preview

Josh Smith had a very good game the last time we played a Big East team on the road. Against the smaller St. John's he should do even better. Here's to hoping to see some real rim rattling intimidation dunks from the big guy. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

We discussed Lavin yesterday.  Appropriately the Lavin issue becomes just talk today, like Lavin should be.  Keep in mind the players don't know or understand the Lizard issues.  Quite frankly they don't have to: it's the administrators at Morgan Center/Murphy Hall and DG that need to understand it.

However, I wonder if this will be the first time the alumni has a louder negative response than the students.  It should be interesting to watch and listen.  

But enough of the circus, what about the game?   St. John's has a great RPI and the game will be on CBS at 10 a.m. PST.  St. John's is a team with nine seniors and four or five senior starters.  Yes, you read that right.  As far as the match-ups, quickly and briefly.

On offense, St. John's is small and plays zone.  They beat Duke in part by packing in the zone and beating Duke on an off shooting night.   They will zone and press us.  We will need to be able to break a press and trap.  

Bruins struggle from beyond the arc; they are ranked No. 258 in the country in 3-pointers per game (5.3) and No. 228 in 3-point percentage (32.8). St. John's is one of the worst teams in the country, percentage-wise, defending against the 3, but that shouldn't be a problem Saturday.

Also, UCLA commits 14.5 turnovers per game (No. 226 in the country) -- so the Bruins could have problems with St. John's full-court press and half-court trap, which forced a good ball-handling Rutgers team into 23 turnovers on Wednesday.

I have a feeling the three issue may be a problem for St. John's and a plus for UCLA.  The press is a bigger worry.  It has been a while since we played a real pressing team and we have had problems there.  UCLA needs to limit turnovers.

Now moving over to the defensive match-ups, in terms of guard play and who the go-to-scorer is, St. John's does not have a PG. It's lead guard is Dwight Hardy.  He leads St. John's in points, assists and turnovers.  He lit up Duke for 26 and is good at attacking the rack.  He also shot the most threes on the team.  I am looking forward to seeing him receive the Malcolm Lee treatment. 

Really, St. John's does not rebound or pass the ball well (no surprise given who their "coach" is).  They do press well and have experience to take advantage of mistakes.  

More after the jump with our interview with pico dulce of Rumble in the Garden:


1. How does St. John's lose to Fordham? UCLA bad loss was by a young team to an experienced conference leader. St. John is a senior laden team that lost to the worst team in the A-10.

The loss to Fordham was a terrible loss. It was ridiculous. I was there that night and I thought part of the problem was the coaching/ style they wanted to play. The Red Storm were playing fast, trying to press, even though the press and matchup zones had shown some flaws in the previous games - maybe they didn't have the right athletes for it, or maybe the design was flawed.

But part of the loss was on the players, as well. In some of their games last year and this season, some players seem to... lose concentration. They took poor outside shots, they didn't work patiently on offense, they reached on defense. It all happened against Fordham, a team that is a local rival to St. John's with a number of local players. Fordham's coach Tom Pecora, who has often angled for the HC job with the Red Storm, had beaten St. John's 4 of the previous 5 times he had faced them while he was head coach at Hofstra; if anyone knows how to beat St. John's, it's him. It's his Superbowl.

Bad losses happen to many teams. How does Louisville lose to Drexel? How does UCLA lose to a school that lose to San Francisco, Nevada, and Utah? Bad losses happen sometimes. We wish they wouldn't. And they're a sign of a night or a system gone wrong. But they happen.

That one may keep the Johnnies out of the NCAA Tournament if they can get close; they'll relive that nightmare over and over again.


2. People laughed at Rick Pitino when he picked St. John's to win the Big East but in this age of the one and dones, how much difference does it make for St. John's to have so many of its players (including its top 5 scorers) be seniors? Does any team in the Big East or the country have as many seniors? (BTW, UCLA has none.)

I still laugh about Pitino picking St. John's to be firstin the Big East. Personally, I think it was a bit calculating - those picks are used to determine a Big East team's tier, which determines which three teams they play twice in the league. That can be the difference of a win or two in the standings; South Florida, for example, enjoyed two games with the defense-free Providence Friars last year.

According to Ken Pomeroy's stats, the struggling Texas Tech Red Raiders plays a similarly senior-laden team, as does Notre Dame (I believe that one of Notre Dame's seniors is actually a junior in terms of eligibility). The other very experienced teams? Schools like North Texas and the Citadel.

It's rare to have this many seniors on this level of basketball. And that's a flaw carried over from the previous staff. They loaded up on players, intimating that the mistakes would lessen when they were juniors. And they did, but the team was still not a competitor in the Big East. And then the team's top two scorers are junior college players brought in to fill the voids from transfers and players who were uncompetitive at the Big East level (like TyShwan Edmondson at Austin Peay, who is tearing it up).

As difference-making goes, seniors are wildly overrated. Talent wins. And really talented players, the difference-makers, they often go pro before they reach their senior year. In St. John's case, the senior class has had one winning season - last year's 17-16 mark, 6-12 in the Big East. So expecting that team to leap into 1st shows a fundamental ignorance of college basketball, impact talent, and the effect of a coach. Experience is great, but it's not the only thing, no matter what coaches say.


3. How important are creating turnovers to St. John's? How is St. John's doing it so well?

St. John's doesn't need turnovers as much as it needs effective pressure. They have won without many turnovers (against West Virginia, against Northwestern), but in both games, their defense forced shots that the other team didn't want to take or couldn't make. St. John's attacks with a 2-1-2 press at times, but sometimes they simply throw some traps out and double the ball handler.

When it's working, it's pretty good pressure, though it does leave open three-pointers in the corner.


4. Who is St. John's best player and who should UCLA fans keep an eye on?

Best player: Justin Brownlee. He's a mobile forward who plays center, has a jump shot and a dribble game that he's using more judiciously than he did last year, a credit to the coaching staff. Last year, Brownlee had some bad habits and spent a lot of time sitting on the sidelines, despite being the team's better offensive option at forward.

UCLA should keep an eye on Dwight Hardy - he's a scorer who can get very hot at times, but he has had some bad cold streaks. He was very effective against Duke.


5. I remember reading Lavin's Noah's Ark recruiting strategy (two of every position) to replace the outgoing senior class. How is that going? Are St. John's fans worried about year 2 with Lavin.

No, I don't think the fans are worried. In fact, a real problem has been that many of the fans are so excited about next year that they're willing to emotionally punt this year. They have endured years of frustration and recruits no one had really heard of.

So now, to have a nationally-touted class of recruits? It's almost too good to be true. But it's going great. The incoming players are excited to come from New York to LA to Texas to Michigan to play at St. John's for Steve Lavin. At some positions, there is a gap - the class could use a beefier post player - but there is some real talent coming in to the program.

Thanks to pico dulce for his insight into St. John's and the Big East.  Now it's time to get it on and have our Bruins give Steve-16 the treatment he deserves.

Go Bruins!

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