St. John’s vast improvement this season may be lost on the national poll voters, who still haven’t deemed the team’s perfect start enough to earn a national ranking, but the same is not true of the Big East coaches who are going to have to game-plan against the Red Storm.
Seton Hall is first up, hosting St. John’s (12-0) in Saturday’s Big East opener at the Prudential Center in Newark. Among conference members, the Pirates (9-3) have played one of the tougher non-conference schedules and have wins over Kentucky, Nebraska and Maryland.
“The biggest thing is trying to figure out who’s going to guard who, because one of the most impressive things about this St. John’s team is that I don’t think they have a weakness offensively one-through-five on the court,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said on Thursday’s Big East teleconference. “They are shooting the ball tremendously — everybody is — and it’s tremendously hard [to defend]. Sometimes you think you’d have them locked down and they have five on the floor who can score at any time. I love they’re playing extremely unselfishly.”
This date with the Pirates is the first difficult test for St. John’s. It also will feature a great matchup of leading men.
St. John’s junior Shamorie Ponds, the preseason conference Player of the Year, is averaging 19.6 points and 6.0 assists and has taken his playmaking up a level from a year ago.
“He’s playing with such poise and confidence and really playing the game at an NBA level,” Willard said. “He’s not forcing shots. He’s getting everyone involved. He’s playing with a pace where, when he needs to attack, he can attack anybody in the country. He is by far one of the elite players in college basketball.”
Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski, whose 18th-ranked Golden Eagles will play at Carnesecca Arena on New Year’s Day, said this of Ponds: “He’s an elite-level guard, one of the top guards in the United States. He’s a tremendous scorer. He puts great pressure on a defense with that ability to break you down off the dribble [and] his ability to shoot from behind the three-point line. From watching them . . . I think his decision-making has continued to improve.”
Seton Hall counters with junior Myles Powell, who is second in the conference with a 23.1-point average and has made 38 percent of his three-pointers.
“[He’s a] great scorer. He makes contested shots look easy,” St. John’s coach Chris Mullin said. “He’s a kid that’s really worked on his fitness and conditioning. He’s their leading scorer and can really get it going. He’s a big-time shooter, plays well without the ball — he’s an excellent player.”
St. John’s has not fared well on the road against the Pirates, having lost 13 of its last 14 across the Hudson. It also will remain undersized as 6-9 Sedee Keita remains sidelined after a knee procedure; Mullin said he has yet to return to practice.
The Red Storm haven’t faced this tough an opponent yet but have begun to manhandle lesser teams in the past two weeks. Before that, there was inconsistent play, but St. John’s still found ways to win against Cal, VCU and Georgia Tech. Seton Hall presents a chance to see if the team has incorporated the lessons of the first 12 games and can employ them.