On media day, St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison was going to be his point guard because good things happen when you put the ball in his hands. But when the Red Storm opened Big East play Wednesday night at Villanova’s Pavilion, Lavin inserted transfer Jamal Branch as the starter at the point in a three-guard lineup with Harrison and Phil Greene.
The results were mixed at best, and Harrison (pictured) suggested the three-guard lineup might need some work on the drawing board because the Wildcats outrebounded St. John’s, 47-34, including 17 offensive rebounds that led to 18 Nova points. That was a major factor in the Red Storm’s 98-86 overtime loss.
Asked how he felt about the three-guard lineup, Harrison said, “We knew it [was a possibility] coming into the season. They outrebounded us like crazy. Villanova is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. They had a lot of long [offensive] rebounds, so that’s on the guards. It’s not the ‘bigs’ fault. We have to track those down.”
Lavin’s theory about putting the ball in Harrison’s hands was correct as the sophomore had a career-high 36 points, making six of 12 three-point attempts to carry the Red Storm much of the game. Greene did his part with 15 points, including five straight in the late going that gave St. John’s an 81-78 lead.
Branch, who started in only his second game since becoming eligible after transferring from Texas A&M at midseason last year, had his ups and downs. With St. John’s holding an eight-point lead in the first half, he committed a flagrant foul against Villanova point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who was lighting it up on his way to a 32-point night.
The freshman hit both foul shots to start what turned into a four-point possession, and two Branch turnovers on the next two possessions led to fast-break layups by JayVaughn Pinkston for a 43-38 Wildcats lead. Lavin didn’t hesitate to fault Branch, citing a “lack of maturity that cost us” by the sophomore.
Branch recognized his mistake after the game. “I was caught up in the moment,” Branch said of his decision to shove Arcidiacono to the floor. “We were battling the whole game. I definitely won’t do that again.”
Branch added that he has no problem coming off the bench should Lavin decide to switch back to a more conventional starting lineup. “It’s whatever coach Lav wants,” Branch said. “I’m going to give 110 percent if I start or come off the bench.”
The good part for Branch was that he showed resiliency in the second half, scoring nine of his 12 points. At its best, Harrison said the three-guard lineup could compare to what Connecticut does with Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun, the Huskies' top three scorers.
“It’s similar to what UConn does with three guards and Jamal pushing it,” Harrison said. “Jamal showed he can score. He’s still learning. It’s only his second game. Once he becomes a threat like me and Phil, it’s going to be hard to stop us. Any of us can get 30. If we get our defensive rebounding, we’ll be straight.”
One thing Branch has going for him is a sense of familiarity with Harrison since both grew up in the Houston area. Harrison’s 36-point night came as no surprise to Branch, who said, “I’ve been playing with D’Angelo since we were in middle school. I expect that from him.”