Friday, November 18, 2011

Texas A&M 58, St. John's 57

[recap] [box score]

I'm beginning to see why Steve Lavin has been so insistent on playing that aggressive 1-1-3 trapping zone.

After being shredded by Arizona's three-point shooting last night and giving up a three triples in the first eight minutes or so against Texas A&M, Lavin finally put his team into a man-to-man defense, and he switched back and forth throughout the game. Almost immediately, the Aggies shifted their focus from the perimeter to the interior.

The Red Storm only go seven deep, and of that group, only God'sgift Achiuwa is a post player. And at 6'8", 236, he's actually undersized against the front-line players of most power-conference teams. The matchup problems continue at the power forward position: Moe Harkless is 6'8", but weighs only 190 pounds, and is clearly more accustomed to playing on the wing than he is banging underneath with power forwards.

So against a team like Texas A&M, which has guys like Ray Turner, Kourtney Roberson, and David Loubeau -- guys who aren't necessarily that much bigger than the Red Storm, but who are accustomed to playing in the post -- they are going to struggle. Harkless, especially, was exploited on several occasions in the low post.

So what's the solution? One way to keep the ball out of the post is to pressure the opposition's ballhandlers, to make the entry pass into the post more difficult. In this regard, Lavin has the luxury of having Sir'Dominic Pointer, a 6'6" freshman who is an excellent on-ball defender. Pointer is able to stay with smaller players, and his length can cause the opposing point guard problems. Indeed, Pointer made life difficult for Dash Harris on several occasions in the second half, with 20 or 25 seconds often going by before the Aggies completed their first pass of the possession. Ball pressure also resulted in a couple of turnovers by Harris' backup, freshman Jamal Branch.

But a team as thin as the Johnnies are cannot afford to play pressure perimeter defense for a full 40 minutes. Foul trouble will be a concern every night out, and fatigue -- if not on a nightly basis, then certainly over the course of the season -- will eventually eat them up.

The other option, and what I consider to be the best one, is to mix man-to-man with a more traditional 2-3 zone, saving the aggressive, trapping look as a change-up. The current zone is ineffective for a lot of reasons, but a big problem is the aggressiveness. The St. John's players pressure the ball too much, making it easier to get around them. That also spreads the zone thin, which makes it very susceptible to screens low on the weak side, which opens up three-point looks as well as clear lanes to the basket along the baseline. The same factor also contributes to their rebounding problems -- it's hard enough as it is to rebound out of zone, especially when undersized; being 25 feet from the basket when the shot goes up makes it even more difficult.

I know I've been awfully critical of St. John's in this space, despite the fact that they've been reasonably successful, results-wise, and given what they have to work with, that's pretty remarkable. But they've got to figure this defense thing out if they are going to have any success in the Big East.

Texas A&M notes: Elston Turner made a big-time move on the game-winner, navigating a flat ball screen to the right elbow, then hitting a fadeaway over the helping Achiuwa, who defended the play well ... After Turner's basket, Billy Kennedy made a big mistake by instructing his charges to play full-court pressure on the ensuing inbounds with six seconds left. Nurideen Lindsey lost Jordan Green on a ball screen, which allowed Lindsey, an elite open court player, to catch the ball with a full head of steam heading into the front court. He eventually drew a foul at the basket with 2.3 seconds left ... The man whistled for the foul, Ray Turner, played Lindsey well, and was standing completely still when Lindsey charged into him. But Lindsey slipped just far enough around Lindsey so that the contact wasn't straight on, and the officials always give that call to the offensive player.

St. John's notes: Lindsey's two misses from the free throw line after that foul -- one front rim, one in and out -- are the two that everyone will point to, but the Red Storm killed themselves at the free throw line all afternoon. St. John's shot 38 free throws compared to Texas A&M's three, but made just 22 of those attempts ... D'Angelo Harrison made a couple big three-pointers to give his team a chance to win, but then took a couple bad ones to help squander that chance ... Freshman Phil Greene made his first start of the season, replacing Malik Stith in the starting lineup. Greene appears to give St. John's a consistent deep threat, which they don't really have anywhere else. He also picked up a couple of buckets on offensive rebounds.

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