Cunniff’s Corner: Johnnies ‘D’ Must Improve to be Successful
If its 110-80 win over C.W. Post was any indication of what’s to come, the St. John’s men’s basketball team is set to have a roller coaster season.
On one hand, the Red Storm were soft defensively, especially in the interior. Post shot 47 percent in the first half and worked its way through the Johnnies’ zone press too easily. Rebounding was also an issue, as St. John’s was only able to equal its Division II opponent’s 36 rebounds.
But on the other hand, the Johnnies showed what they are capable of offensively, shooting 65 percent from the field and showing the scoring instinct that last year’s team, with the exception of Dwight Hardy, often lacked.
It’s not exactly a revelation that defense and rebounding are the two areas that St. John’s struggles at the most right now. They are undersized and undermanned. Junior God’sgift Achiuwa, who started at center against C.W. Post, is the only true post player they have, and even he is undersized for a big man.
He’s listed at 6-foot-9, but appears to be shorter than 6-foot-8 forward Maurice Harkless and 6-foot-6 forward Sir’Dominic Pointer.
Height isn’t everything, of course, and Achiuwa showed remarkably soft hands and good touch around the basket. That, along with his willingness to run the floor consistently, will make him successful at St. John’s.
But it doesn’t change the fact that Achiuwa will at times be as much as six inches shorter than the player he is guarding. If either he or Harkless, who led the team with 14 rebounds against Post, get into foul trouble (as Harkless did in the first half), then things get even tougher for St. John’s defensively.
The best hope St. John’s has of being successful this year is to do what it did against Post—run hard and run often. The Johnnies looked to score in transition every chance they got and wore down their opponent and led to countless easy buckets.
Obviously, it’s easier to do this against Division II competition than Big East competition, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t.
For all the questions and liabilities on the defensive end, there are answers and strengths on the offensive end. Achiuwa showed a knack for scoring in the paint that can’t be taught, and guards Nurideen Lindsey, Phil Greene and D’Angelo Harrison showed good awareness in getting him the ball at every opportunity.
Those three guards showed some offensive skills of their own as well. Harrison came to St. John’s with a reputation of being a knock-down shooter, and Lindsey was reputed to be a pure scorer. But Greene outscored both of them against Post, scoring 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting, thanks in large part to the unselfish play of his teammates.
And Harkless is the most dynamic player of them all. While he didn’t get a chance to show what he can do in the first half because of foul trouble, he made up for it in the second half, scoring 10 points in the first four minutes and almost single-handedly turning a competitive game into a rout.
It’s not a stretch to say that this team has more offensive firepower than last year’s. In fact, the coaching staff has said it repeatedly.
The Johnnies’ offense will keep them in games this season. There may be a game or two where everybody catches fire and they upset a ranked team, and no matter how successful they are, they’ll play an up-tempo, entertaining brand of basketball.
But as the old cliché goes, “Defense wins championships.” Lindsey and Harrison insist that this St. John’s team can win a national championship this season. But look at last year’s national championship game between UConn and Butler, an ugly 53-41 affair in which neither team gave the other an inch.
Can St. John’s win a game like that? After seeing its defense against C.W. Post, is it even a question worth asking?
Lindsey and Harrison’s comments aside, it’s totally unfair to hold St. John’s to these standards. After all, UConn and Butler were two veteran teams loaded with experience and depth along with talent. St. John’s has virtually no experience and a paper-thin depth chart.
Those will prove to be mountains too steep to climb in the Big East. Every team in the conference can score. Not every team can defend.
Last year’s team finished tied for third in the conference on the strength of its defense. This year’s team has a long way to go.