If St. John's coach Steve Lavin thought he had the perfect antidote to Connecticut's powerful three-guard lineup Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, that notion evaporated with a defeat Saturday at Georgetown that left his own three-guard attack in tatters. Jamal Branch was lost for an undetermined time with a sprained left knee, and leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison was shaken by a career-low two-point game.
Harrison should recover from the dent to his confidence, but Branch underwent an MRI examination on Tuesday that revealed a sprained medial collateral ligament, and he was on crutches. Lavin expressed guarded optimism Branch might return Sunday at Syracuse but said that depends on a further evaluation later this week.
So Lavin has a major lineup decision to make when the Red Storm (14-8, 6-4 Big East) tackles the high-scoring Huskies (15-5, 5-3), who feature the talented backcourt trio of Shabazz Napier (17.2 ppg., 4.1 assists), Ryan Boatright (16.2, 4.6) and Omar Calhoun (10.7).
"It's clearly a blow when you're down a starter and a playmaker," Lavin said. "Hopefully, our depth can offset to some degree the loss of Jamal Branch. But it's a blow to the team, and now, we've got to step up and find a way to be competitive in his absence."
Lavin declined to name a starter but said he's choosing between a three-guard lineup utilizing sophomore Marco Bourgault with Harrison and Phil Greene or returning to a big lineup by starting center Chris Obekpa, who has come off the bench the past six games. Obekpa leads the nation with 99 blocked shots, but Bourgault had a career-high 12-point game at Georgetown.
"Regardless of whether we start Obekpa or not, he's going to get starter's minutes," Lavin said. "I expect him to play anywhere from 25-35 minutes depending on how the game's going.
"Bourgault is shooting the ball so well, and UConn likes to zone. So there's an advantage of having Marco in there in terms of his shot and stretching defense. But at the end of it, Obekpa is the central figure of what we do defensively, so expect him to get major minutes."
Bourgault was a revelation against the Hoyas, making 5 of 10 shots, including two long-range threes. Lavin said Bourgault is the rare shooter to whom he has given the "Emerald City green light" to shoot whenever he's open.
"He's got a cannon, he's got a bazooka," Lavin said of Bourgault, whose minutes have been limited by his tendency to commit turnovers and pass up open shots. "I emphasize to him that, when he gets minutes, his thinking has to be 'hunting shots,' to have an aggressive mindset to look to score."
Of course, Obekpa's defense might be more important than Bourgault's offense in stopping the highest-scoring team in the Big East. Lavin said Obekpa is "a complete game-changer at the rim. All of a sudden, the airspace is a little bit different. Regardless of whether he starts or not, he's going to receive starter's minutes and influence the game the way any of the starters would."