One of the best parts about playing St. John's (other than the fact that it is a high profile team from the Big East) is that they have an SB Nation blog as well! To help get perspective from someone who covers the team, we were happy to chat with Pico from "Rumble in the Garden" about tomorrow's Bulldogs-Red Storm battle at the Pepsi Center in Denver. Thanks to Pico for taking the time on this. Enjoy!
My answers to Pico's questoins about the Zags can be found here
The Slipper Still Fits: What was the reaction to Steven Lavin's hire at St. John's? I imagine he has exceeded immediate expectations but what are the areas you really think Lavin has taken charge of?
Rumble in the Garden: The immediate reaction from New York was cautious optimism. There were the questions of whether he could recruit that oh-so-coveted New York area; many in the national media went back to describing Lavin as some kind of lucked-up loser who would be crushed by being far from his native west coast.
Personally? I was cautiously excited. Compared to the flotsam that the administration tried to get - Paul Hewitt? Seth Greenberg? Al Skinner? Only Billy Donovan would have been worth money, and there's something about him I just don't like. (Too Pitino-ego, perhaps.)
Some would say that the Red Storm were due to get better this year, to finally have a positive in-conference efficiency margin (John Gasaway had an Insider piece on ESPN about that, for example), but Lavin has done a lot that I don't think would have been done with the previous staff.
The short version: Lavin made the team better passers; they move the ball in a much more intelligent way. And he crafted a pressure defense that creates points from turnovers. And he sped up their game - it happens in spurts, so the Johnnies don't profile as a fast team, but they'll probe in transition.
TSSF: St. John's has wins over Notre Dame, Duke, Connecticut, and Pitt. Obviously a remarkable resume, what has been the defining factor in those wins?
RitG: Surprisingly good defense despite the Johnnies' breakdowns, a lot of defensive energy... and decent game plans, especially against Kemba Walker. In each game, the Red Storm managed to respond/ rotate quickly enough to get a hand in the face of the team's perimeter shooters.
Notre Dame crumbles if they can't hit their shots/ get set up properly. Duke might have spent some time in the New York clubs, because they came out of the locker room rattled. The U Conn and Pitt games were different; Connecticut's Walker was simply defended well - didn't have a chance to snake into the paint, and the only shots he could hit were three-pointers, which are available against St. John's. Against Pitt, St. John's just kept getting to the line.
TSSF: While they have great wins, St. John's only has one win on the road over a top-25 opponent and has lost both times they visited the western part of the states. Are their concerns about the travel to Denver for this team?
(Zach's note: I am an idiot and totally forgot about SJU's Great Alaskan Tourney appearance).
RitG: Actually, the Great Alaska Shootout is considered west (isn't it? Do people in the western part of the country consider Alaska another country?), and St. John's won three games in the Shootout - granted, against Ball State, Drake, and Arizona State. So they're 3-2 in the western part of the states.
The schedule was designed to get the Red Storm road tested for the NCAA Tournament/ neutral site games. I'd feel more confident if they could have dealt with St. Mary's better, or with UCLA better, but I don't think the road is what got them, I think it was the matchups.
TSSF: D.J. Kennedy's loss has been discussed a lot in the lead up to this game. In your opinion, in what facet of the game does his loss hurt the most?
RitG: Possibly out-of-area rebounding. But I'm curious to see what the defense looks like in transition without Kennedy's hustle/ quickness; there isn't a player on the roster who's shown that they can replicate that who isn't already starting.
And what I think is that the Bulldogs will get more game than they're bargaining for, but some misses at the free throw line for the Johnnies could be the difference. Every player replacing Kennedy is a far less adept free throw shooter than D.J.
TSSF: What can St. John's not afford to do on Thursday night if they want to come through with a win?
RitG: The Johnnies can't let Gonzaga get hot from the outside. I expect them to pack in the defense, force some turnovers, make the big men make decisions; but the killer for this team is when the opponent makes open threes (and there will be opportunities for the Zags).
St. John's can't turn the ball over. Sometimes, the team just gets sloppy with the ball handling and it cuts down on their chances to score (obviously); without Kennedy, I worry that the team might come out sloppy for stretches.