On the surface, St. John’s did what it had to do in dispatching South Florida, 69-54, Wednesday night at Carnesecca Arena. If the Red Storm wanted to have any chance of receiving an NCAA bid, it had to win the most winnable game left on its regular-season schedule against the worst team in the Big East.
It wasn’t pretty in the second half. After taking a 22-point lead, the Red Storm (16-10, 8-6 Big East) let the Bulls (10-16, 1-13) cut it to nine with 1:27 left to play. But St. John’s made its free throws, hitting eight straight from that point, which is a big improvement over earlier in the season. Still, after holding South Florida to 25 percent shooting in the first half, the Red Storm allowed a 48.3 performance in the second half, including 50 percent from three-point range (7 of 14).
But here’s the number that really jumped out of the box score – South Florida had a 17-6 margin in bench points. That’s not a good sign for the Red Storm, and it can be traced to the absence of point guard Jamal Branch (pictured), whose recovery from a medial collateral ligament injury to his left knee is uncertain this season.
If Branch were available, Marc-Antoine Bourgault, who had 10 points against the Bulls, would be bringing his potent jump shot off the bench in a limited but highly effective role. Without Branch, Bourgault is a starter, but he doesn’t have point-guard skills.
That means starting point guard Phil Greene must play heavy minutes. He logged 38 against South Florida despite an 0-for-7 shooting night. Greene offset his offensive woes by dishing five assists with no turnovers. There’s no doubt he can handle the ball and distribute.
But Greene is struggling terribly with his shooting, possibly because he’s affected by a hip injury. He’s shooting 35.5 percent from the field and 25.1 percent from three-point range. He has to keep shooting to force defenses to cover him, but if he doesn’t improve soon, leading scorers D’Angelo Harrison (18 points vs. USF) and JaKarr Sampson (20) will find themselves running into even more traffic than they’re seeing now.
Greene had a 21-point game and hit 9 of 18 shots in the previous game at Louisville, and the Red Storm needs him to provide more of that down the stretch, starting Sunday against Pitt at the Garden. The Red Storm then has road games at Providence and Notre Dame before finishing at home against Marquette.
If Branch returns at some point this season, it certainly would ease the burden on Greene, especially since Branch can shoot a little himself (49.3 percent) because he tends to drive to the basket rather than settle for threes.
But the day before the South Florida game, Lavin described Branch’s condition as uncertain. “He feels he’s making progress, but there’s still some pain,” Lavin said. “That’s signaling he’s not fully recovered, and we’ll wait until there’s a full recuperation. If it’s wait until next year, we’ve got to go that route instead of risking a long-term setback or injury.
“We won’t play him until he can go at full speed, make stops and starts, be able to change direction and have the explosiveness you need at both ends of the floor to play effectively.”
Without question, that’s the right approach to Branch’s injury. Lavin and the Red Storm just have to hope Branch mends in time to contribute because they are so much deeper and better with him.