Thursday, November 10, 2011

St. John's 78, Lehigh 73

[recap] [box score]

I didn't get a chance to watch this game last night, but was eager to get to it this morning on my DVR. I had watched St. John's in their season-opening win over William & Mary on Monday, and had written a bit about some of the problems I saw with their aggressive take on the matchup zone. I was not a little delighted, then, when Lehigh opened up the game by hitting their first five three-pointers. Part of the reason I feel compelled to write about basketball, you see, is to keep a scoreboard of the dialogue I have with myself about basketball, to keep track of things so I can remind myself how smart I am.

I began ticking off all the things that were wrong with the St. John's defense, preparing for this post. Slow rotations, poor fundamentals, too much aggressiveness. On a hunch, I went over to HoopSpeakU to see if, by some chance, Sebastian Pruiti had done the work for me and pointed out the flaws in the defense. He had, with visual aids, and far more descriptively than I ever could. So go read that.

That torch having been so aptly carried, and knowing the outcome of the game, I shifted my focus away from the St. John's defense and instead tried to figure out just how Lehigh lost this game.

I found, however, that I simply could not escape Red Storm defense as the controlling theme for this matchup. For -- while the inexperienced Johnnies valiantly fought back from a 16-point deficit to get within six -- it wasn't until they switched to a man-to-man defense around the eight-minute mark that they made the final push that led them to victory.

With freshman Sir'Dominic Pointer locking up C.J. McCollum -- the nation's leading returning scorer and the only Mountain Hawk capable of creating his own shot against the longer, more athletic Red Storm -- St. John's shut down Lehigh's offense ... for a few possessions. Now within 60-56, St. John's head coach Steve Lavin (welcome back, Steve!) again switched back to the aggressive zone, resulting in a wide-open three-pointer for Jordan Hamilton from the right corner. They actually had a camera on Lavin as Hamilton rose for the shot, and Lavin winced.

Fortunately for Lavin, Hamilton missed, and you'd think the coach would have learned his lesson. Incredibly, though, St. John's kept switching defenses. Every time the Red Storm went back to its zone, Lehigh got either a basket or a makeable look. St. John's didn't come up with a stop on every man-to-man possession, but they were far more successful defensively in that configuration.

It's true that the zone is creating turnovers. Lehigh committed 16 Wednesday night, and William & Mary had 21 in the opener. But the zone is creating a ton of good looks, and this is where the stat sheet might let you down a bit. Both of SJU's opponents thus far this season are good three-point shooting teams. The Tribe made 11 of 32 triples on Monday; the Mountain Hawks hit eight of 26 from distance. It may look like St. John's is forcing their opponents into tough shots from the perimeter, but they aren't. Trust me -- their opponents are just missing good looks. That's bound to catch up with them sooner or later.

St. John's notes: The other problem with the gambling zone is that it creates a lot of second-shot opportunities. It's hard enough to rebound out of a zone as it is -- it's even harder when you are running around like crazy trying to cover for your teammates. Lehigh had 15 offensive rebounds ... Nurideen Lindsey, Moe Harkless, and God'sgift Achiuwa were once again the stars for St. John's. Achiuwa's baseline spin from the right block still appears to be his go-to move, but he did, on one late possession, catch the ball 15 feet from the basket, put it on the deck to his left, and hit the lefty layup while being fouled.

Lehigh notes: McCollum is super smooth, and in addition to being a threat from deep, he's got a nice floater off the dribble. He also seems comfortable handling the ball and running the offense, at least against the zone. Pointer did a nice job on him, as mentioned, and he did have a couple of key late turnovers ... Speaking of key late turnovers, Anthony D'Orazio squandered Lehigh's last real chance at pulling this game out by throwing a crazy lob pass on a 2-on-1 break with about 25 seconds left. Down 74-69, circumstances probably dictated that D'Orazio take a three-pointer, or at least try to get the defense thinking he would. Instead, D'Orazio threw a lob from the left wing which Achiwua, hanging out under the basket, easily intercepted.

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