St. John’s staring at wide-open draw


Twenty-one years later, St. John’s could be a threat in the Big East Tournament again. Yes, it has been that long since the Johnnies reached the Friday night semifinals at the Garden. It’s been six years since they managed a winning regular-season league mark and had a bye past the out-bracket round.

But led by two impressive Brooklyn natives — All-Big East first-team selection Julian Champagnie and Big East Freshman of the Year favorite Posh Alexander — a head coach in Mike Anderson who has given this program an identity, and the fourth-seeded Red Storm enter this tournament with a legit shot at the final, which could very likely equal an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The draw couldn’t be better. Skidding No. 5 Seton Hall in the quarterfinals, and potentially injury-riddled No. 1 Villanova in the semifinals. The top half of the draw is wide open — as wide open as the bottom half is likely to go to chalk.

That’s where second-seeded Creighton and No. 3 Connecticut seem headed for a semifinal clash, the winner a heavy favorite to cut down the Garden nets, two tournament teams capable of reaching the second weekend. A UConn-St. John’s final Saturday night would deliver incredible buzz, a possibility that isn’t so farfetched.

It all begins Wednesday afternoon at MSG:

No. 1 Villanova (16-5, 11-4)

Coach: Jay Wright

Star: Soph. F Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (15.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg). An All-Big East first-team selection, Robinson-Earl now has an immense responsibility to carry Villanova following injuries to guards Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore.

Villanova head coach Jay Wright and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl
Villanova head coach Jay Wright and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl
AP Photo

X factor: Jr. G Caleb Daniels (10.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg). The Tulane transfer averaged 16.9 points two years ago for the Green Wave, and that kind of offensive production will be needed now. Daniels will have to be much better than he was in his last two games — 12 total points on 2 of 15 shooting — if the Wildcats want to advance.

Strength: Frontcourt scoring. Robinson-Earl and Jermaine Samuels are two of the league’s most versatile and talented forwards, a duo that can stretch opposing defenses and also score in the paint.

Weakness: Backcourt. The absence of Gillespie and Moore is a crippling blow for a team that had very little depth to begin with. Bryan Antoine and Chris Arcidiacono, who have appeared in a combined 15 games this season, will need to play big minutes.

Can win title if: Robinson-Earl and Samuels play like All-Americans, the 3s are falling and Antoine discovers the form that made him a McDonald’s All-American after dealing with injuries the better part of the last two seasons.

BetMGM Odds: 3/1

No. 2 Creighton (18-7, 14-6)

Coach: Greg McDermott

Star: Jr. G Marcus Zegarowski (15.4 ppg, 4.4 apg). The Big East’s Preseason Player of the Year fell short of expectations, in part due to injuries, but he remains one of the premier point guards in the country, a dynamic shooter and playmaker capable of taking over a game at any moment.

X factor: Sr. G Mitch Ballock (10.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg). An elite marksman, Ballock has in-the-building range. When he’s on, it’s so hard to defend Creighton’s many slashers and perimeter threats.

Strength: Scoring depth. Creighton’s entire starting five averages in double figures. Anyone can hurt you.

Weakness: Chemistry. It will be interesting to follow the dynamic between McDermott and his players after he was suspended one game, and then reinstated, for his racially insensitive remarks after a recent loss.

Can win title if: Creighton is on the same page with its coach. There isn’t a more talented team in the league.

Odds: 9/4

No. 3 Connecticut (14-6, 11-6)

Coach: Dan Hurley

Star: Soph. G James Bouknight (20.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg). UConn has lost just two games with Bouknight in the lineup — to Creighton and Villanova. The projected lottery pick from Brooklyn is the best player in the Big East.

X factor: Jr. G R.J. Cole (12.6 ppg, 4.3 apg). The Howard transfer’s emergence as a secondary scorer has elevated the Huskies. In the last seven games, of which UConn has won six, Cole is averaging 15.1 points and 4.7 assists.

UConn guard R.J. Cole
UConn guard R.J. Cole
The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP

Strength: Defense. The Big East’s leader in defensive efficiency allows just 65.2 points per game and also leads the conference in blocked shots (5.4) and rebounding margin (plus-5.1).

Weakness: Experience. This is all new for this version of UConn, playing in its first Big East Tournament at the Garden.

Can win title if: The momentum from the end of the regular season carries over. UConn enters the tournament the league’s hottest team —and it might be its best team, too.

Odds: 5/2

No. 4 St. John’s (16-10, 10-9)

Coach: Mike Anderson

Star: Soph. F Julian Champagnie (19.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg). The Brooklyn native was just the fifth St. John’s sophomore to be named to the Big East’s first team, joining Shamorie Ponds (2018), Erick Barkley (2000), Ron Artest (1999) and Chris Mullin (1983). A lights-out shooter, improving playmaker and quality defender, Champagnie may have an NBA future one day.

X factor: Fr. G Posh Alexander (11.1 ppg, 2.6 spg). The front-runner for Big East Freshman of the Year, Alexander is a perfect fit for Anderson’s up-tempo style, a dynamic defender and improving shooter. The big question is whether the sprained right thumb that cost the point guard the last two games will limit him this week.

Strength: Turnover margin. St. John’s is plus-3.7 and forces 16.5 turnovers per game, which is 15th in the country, with its relentless pressure defense.

Weakness: Rebounding. St. John’s was tied for last in the league in defensive rebounding percentage at 69.7 percent.

Can win title if: Alexander’s thumb has healed, Champagnie remains consistent and St. John’s avoids its recent habit of slow starts. The draw, facing slumping Seton Hall first likely followed by injury-ravaged Villanova, is favorable.

Odds: 16/1

No. 5 Seton Hall (13-12, 10-9)

Coach: Kevin Willard

Star: Sr. F Sandro Mamukelashvili (19.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg). One of the most talented forwards in the country, the 6-foot-11 southpaw can beat you in the paint and from the perimeter. He has struggled somewhat late in the season as the go-to guy as teams have looked to take him away, and he hasn’t done enough to end the Pirates’ current four-game skid.

Seton Hall forward Sandro Mamukelashvili
Seton Hall forward Sandro Mamukelashvili
AP Photo

X factor: Sr. G Bryce Aiken (5.7 ppg, 1.5 apg). The Harvard transfer hasn’t been able to stay on the court, appearing in just 14 games due to a variety of injuries. But when he is on the floor, the sharpshooting guard creates much-needed court spacing and another scoring option.

Strength: Experience. Willard’s team features four seniors — Mamukelashvili, Aiken, Myles Cale and Shavar Reynolds — who know what it takes to win this time of year.

Weakness: 3-point defense. Seton Hall is the worst in the Big East defending the 3, allowing its opponents to shoot 36.9 percent from long range.

Can win title if: Aiken can stay healthy and give this team a jump-start, Mamukelashvili takes charge at the right times, and the recent defensive woes on the perimeter get cleaned up.

Odds: 12/1

No. 6 Providence (13-12, 9-10)

Coach: Ed Cooley

Star: Jr. G David Duke (19.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg). He’s long, athletic and strong, an improved shooter and strong defender. Yet, in big spots, Duke has failed to rise to the occasion. This week would be a good time for a breakthrough.

X factor: Jr. G A.J. Reeves (9.8 ppg, 3.6 spg). A junior, the former top-50 recruit has yet to reach expectations, but he remains vital to this team. When he’s involved, and knocking down 3-pointers, it opens up everything for Duke and forward Nate Watson.

Strength: Defending the 3. Opponents shoot just 29.9 percent from deep, tied for the 20th-lowest mark in the nation.

Weakness: Supporting cast. Forward Jimmy Nichols Jr.’s absence due to an undisclosed illness has been difficult to overcome, and so has the inconsistency of everyone not named Duke or Watson.

Can win title if: For four nights, Duke and Watson get the help they’ve been waiting for, and this team finds the missing toughness usually associated with the Friars.

Odds: 20/1

No. 7 Xavier (13-7, 6-7)

Coach: Travis Steele

Star: Soph. F Zach Freemantle (16.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg). The league’s co-most improved player, the New Jersey native took a huge leap this year, more than doubling his scoring and rebounding.

X factor: Fr. G C.J. Wilcher (3.1 ppg, 1.1 rpg). An afterthought most of the year, the four-star recruit has seen his minutes skyrocket in the last two games. Xavier is looking for scoring help, and Wilcher has the talent to provide it.

Strength: Sharing the ball. The Musketeers average a whopping 17.8 assists per game, seventh-most in the country.

Weakness: Depth. Season-ending injuries to Ben Stanley and Nate Johnson lowered this team’s ceiling. There are no consistent scoring options after Freemantle and Paul Scruggs.

Can win title if: The games are moved to Cintas Center, or Xavier plays like they are. The Musketeers won just twice all year away from home.

Odds: 9/1

No. 8 Georgetown (9-12, 7-9)

Coach: Patrick Ewing

Star: Sr. G Jahvon Blair (15.9 ppg, 4.1 apg). A case could be made the senior guard deserved most improved player honors. His numbers increased across the board.

Georgetown's Jhavon Blair
Georgetown’s Jahvon Blair
Anthony J. Causi

X factor: Sr. G Chudier Bile (10.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg). As the Northwestern State transfer’s minutes increased, Georgetown’s play improved. The 6-foot-7 Bile started nine games and the Hoyas won five of them.

Strength: Offensive rebounding. The Hoyas will go and get it, grabbing 32.1 percent of their missed shots.

Weakness: Defense. Only St. John’s allows more points, and that’s partly due to the Johnnies’ fast-paced style. Georgetown gives up 73.4 points a game, in part because of the Hoyas’ 15.8 turnovers per game that leads to transition opportunities for their opponent.

Can win title if: Don’t laugh, it’s not crazy for the Hoyas to get to the title game. Anyone in the top half of the draw can get there now that Villanova is compromised.

Odds: 80/1

No. 9 Marquette (13-13, 8-11)

Coach: Steve Wojciechowski

Star: So. G D.J. Carton (12.8 ppg, 3.5 apg). The Ohio State transfer is uber-talented, skilled and smooth. Too often, however, he floats in and out of games, waiting too long until trying to take over.

X factor: Fr. F Justin Lewis (7.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg). It’s not a coincidence Marquette struggled the three weeks the freshman forward missed due to a leg injury. Lewis is a glue guy, even in his first season, a difference-maker at both ends of the floor.

Strength: Size. Marquette is long and big at almost every position.

Weakness: Taking care of the ball. Marquette was minus-3.5 in turnover margin and produced a league-low 5.1 steals per game.

Can win title if: The team that upset Wisconsin, Creighton and North Carolina shows up four days in a row. The talent is there. The consistency hasn’t been.

Odds: 25/1

No. 10 Butler (9-14, 8-12)

Coach: LaVall Jordan

Star: Fr. G Chuck Harris (12.8 ppg, 2.4 apg). An All-Big East freshman team selection, Harris is a burgeoning star, an elite-level shotmaker who improved as a playmaker and defender as the year went on.

X factor: Sr. F Bryce Nze (10.6 ppg, 8.0 rpg). He torched Villanova, St. John’s and Seton Hall in late-season victories, producing double-doubles in each win. The question is if an ankle injury will limit him or even keep him out.

Strength: Protecting the glass. Butler doesn’t get hurt by missed shots. It was second in the league in defensive rebounding percentage at 75.3 percent.

Weakness: Free-throw shooting. Butler shoots 64 percent from the charity stripe. Only 17 teams in the county are worse.

Can win title if: We fast-forward two years, when Harris and fellow freshman guard Myles Tate are juniors, and the other member of this freshman class — Scooby Johnson — has time to develop after a torn ACL.

Odds: 100/1

No. 11 DePaul (4-13, 2-13)

Coach: Dave Leitao

Star: Sr. G Charlie Moore (14.4 ppg, 4.4 apg). The 5-foot-11 senior is capable of offensive explosions — just ask St. John’s — and is difficult to stay in front of. Unfortunately for DePaul, he can also be his own enemy, accounting for 3.4 turnovers per game.

Full Big East Tournament bracket
Big East

X factor: Sr. F Pauly Paulicap (7.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg). A Manhattan grad transfer, the rim-protecting senior provides grit and physicality, making up for some of DePaul’s defensive shortcomings.

Strength: No pressure. DePaul isn’t expected to get past the first night. A win over Providence in the opening round would be cause for celebration.

Weakness: 3-point shooting. DePaul hits just 31.7 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc, which is 269th in the country.

Can win title if: The tournament bears no resemblance to the regular season. There is one minor reason for optimism: DePaul was better on the road, with both of its league wins coming on the road — at Marquette and St. John’s. OK, now back to reality.

Odds: 100/1

Braziller prediction

Big East Champion: No. 3 Connecticut

Most Outstanding Player: UConn sophomore guard James Bouknight

Don’t overthink it. UConn has the best player, enters the tournament hot and nearly beat Creighton when it was at full strength. It meets St. John’s in the title game, where the Huskies’ size — and Bouknight’s ability to beat the Johnnies’ pressure — is the difference. 

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Janice Hill

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