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St. John's impresses Butler's Brandon Miller

St. John's JaKarr Sampson sets to shoot in

St. John's JaKarr Sampson sets to shoot in the second half against Butler on Feb. 18, 2014. (Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy)

With the departure of coach Brad Stevens to the Boston Celtics this season, Butler has gone from a perennial NCAA tournament team to last place in the new Big East. Still, the Bulldogs at least have been a tough out all season, going 2-4 in overtime games.

But St. John’s scored a convincing 17-point win on Jan. 25 at fabled Hinkle Fieldhouse, and when it looked liked the Bulldogs (12-14, 2-12 Big East) might cause all kinds of havoc, taking a 33-30 halftime lead, Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, the Red Storm (18-9, 8-6) blew their doors off in the second half of a 77-52 rout.

Needless to say, new Butler coach Brandon Miller, whose team lost by five to No. 18 Creighton five days earlier, was suitably impressed. “They’re playing very, very good basketball right now,” Miller said of the Red Storm. “If you watch over the past four or five games,  not only are they winning games, they’re winning by a lot. They’re one of the best basketball teams in the Big East right now.”

When St. John’s beat Butler the first time, it was the third game in a stretch of 10 in which the Red Storm has won nine, losing only on a buzzer-beater at Creighton. Asked to evaluate St. John’s improvement, Miller said, “They were pretty good against us the first game. But in watching them on film and preparing for them, they looked different.

“The last four or five games, they’ve controlled some of those games and how well they’ve played in stretches. On offense right now, they’re clicking. They have multiple guys making shots and can spread the floor on the offensive end. They have a number of different playmakers who can take advantage of that and make you pick your poison. They’re hard to guard.”

The Bulldogs’ choice of poison Tuesday was named JaKarr Sampson. With starting Red Storm center Chris Obekpa out with a sprained right ankle, Butler’s Khyle Marshall attacked the rim in the first half, scoring 16 points and grabbing seven rebounds. But St. John’s played zone most of the second half, and Sampson was very active in the middle, disrupting passing lanes, grabbing eight rebounds, triggering the transition game and converting at the other end to score a game-high 23 points. Marshall was scoreless in the second half.

“They did a great job of pressuring the ball, forcing us to catch it at spots where we didn’t want it, such as denying the high post,” Marshall said. “They did a great job of denying, pressuring our guards and our bigs as well. We practiced against zone all week, but they did a great job of executing it and it gave us a lot of trouble. You have to credit St. John’s for doing that.”

Now, St. John’s turns its attention to a Saturday afternoon date at the Wells Fargo Center with No. 6 Villanova (23-3, 11-2) which had to dig deep to score an 82-79 double-overtime victory Tuesday night at Providence. “That’s a very big game,” St. John’s Sampson said. “They have a tough fan base, a tough team and a physical team. That will be a big win if we can go there and get that win.”

The way the Red Storm is rolling at this stage, all things are possible.