Busting Brackets

Joel Soriano and Daniss Jenkins lead St. John's over Villanova in Big East battle

Jan 6, 2024; Villanova, Pennsylvania, USA; St. John's Red Storm head coach Rick Pitino reacts in an effort to get his troops organized
Jan 6, 2024; Villanova, Pennsylvania, USA; St. John's Red Storm head coach Rick Pitino reacts in an effort to get his troops organized / Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Rick Pitino has a couple of natty ships to his name (and) at separate schools for a reason. The legend's guile helped his team conquer the Cats on Saturday afternoon in a hostile environment.

Immediately following the Villanova Wildcats’ one-point victory over the Xavier Musketeers on Wednesday night, one of FS1’s top college basketball analysts (in), Casey Jacobsen, made a bold claim about Eric Dixon and how he’s “the best big-man in the Big East”. Fast forward about 72 hours, and it’s clear (that) Jacobsen’s comments are off-base; after the 6-foot 11-inch senior center, Joel Soriano, and his St. John’s teammates steamrolled the Wildcats on Nova’s home floor. Going toe-to-toe with the smaller Dixon on the interior, Soriano had a clear advantage, and his 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting (from the field) along with (his) 8 rebounds reflects that sentiment. With a coaching legend now at the helm for the Red Storm (in), Rick Pitino, St. John’s is no longer merely a big, athletic team that can guard-&-rebound.

Nowadays, Pitino’s presence gives St. John’s and its (notoriously undisciplined, sloppy) offense the organization, clarity, and personnel it’s been lacking (for quite some time; including) when failed coaches like Chris Mullin and others were coaching the squad. After Pitino resurrected his downtrodden career with a pair of NCAA tournament appearances at Iona as the Gaels’ head coach, the two-time NCAA champion (head coach) took his talents back to the Big East to lead St. John’s at the start of the season.

To kick-off his first season in Queens, Pitino did one of his former players (in), 6-foot 4-inch guard Daniss Jenkins, a huge solid by bringing him along (to play for St. John’s); and the longtime head-coach (also) saw to it that the (2022-‘23) Ivy League’s Player of the Year, Penn’s Jordan Dingle, wouldn’t return to Philly. Against the Wildcats during the (/both) teams’ fourth in-conference game (of the season; both teams are now 3-1), Jenkins and Dingle (both) cracked the Red Storm’s starting lineup while contributing to their cause with 18 points (on 7 for 17 shooting) and 9 points (on 3-7); respectively.

Jumping out to an early 10-0 lead, St. John’s was (clearly) determined to stomp on the home-team from the get-go; and its full-court & half-court defense allowed them to seize control of the game only a few minutes in (-to it). Not unlike the Cats' defense, that of St. John’s picks its opponents apart by stressing ball pressure, encouraging active hands, being organized in its scheme, and imposing its own physicality. But, the Red Storm (also) has a strong-press/full-court defense that went to work against the Cats’ vulnerable ball-handlers all game; and opened up a decisive advantage in “Points Off Turnovers”; 18 to 11. Lacking the services of Justin Moore, ‘Nova’s been given no choice but to rely on Bamba, Armstrong, Longino, and (even) Hausen in a ball-handling capacity; and the struggles have been very real.

Not including the Cats’ TJ Bamba and Mark Armstrong (of) who(-m) had 23 (on 8-14 shooting) and 14 (on 6-10 shooting) points; respectively , the home team was struggling immensely to score the basketball. Even though Dixon finished the Big East clash with 14 points, he made just 4 of his 18 shots while (also) the play of Soriano forced the Abington High graduate into a spot where the only way he could be aggressive was by roaming the perimeter; resulting in 10 three-point attempts and 2 measly makes. For the entire game, the Cats made just 6 threes and missed 22 of ‘em; while the away team made just 7 but only put-up 16 long balls.

Unfortunately, Tyler Burton was (once again) a no-show on the offensive end; as the Richmond transfer converted 1 field goal on 6 shot-attempts and finished with 3 points. Throughout the last few games, we’re seeing Burton’s minutes beginning to drop. Although Burton’s a physical player who can guard, rebound, and be a net-positive (player) on both ends of the floor in lots of games, his shortcomings on offense have been particularly noticeable as of late; and with points (being) at such a premium in Big East play it’s not surprising to see Burton on the bench (more).

In what will (likely) be a learning moment for the Cats, Bamba and Soriano were jawing at one another towards the end of the game when Nova was down double-digits and forced to-play the fouling game. While the young man’s frustrations weren’t unwarranted given how poorly his team was playing, it wasn’t Bamba’s finest moment in a Nova uniform; and this should be (looked at) a(-s; a) great opportunity for Neptune to address his team and to-remind them of the importance of (having) poise.

Trailing (in the second half) by as many as 17 points and never drawing even or taking the lead, Villanova got thoroughly outplayed by Pitino’s well-prepared squad; but it’s worth noting that Neptune’s defense was solid besides a few undisciplined fouls (cough, cough Armstrong).

At 3-1 in the Big East, Villanova is in good shape so far. Against St. John’s, however, it was clear as day how much the Cats miss Justin Moore for his ball-handling, playmaking, and scoring. Without him, they might be able to survive ; but asking them to thrive in such a dire situation is unrealistic. The Cats’ roster w/out Moore might (still) be good enough to earn an at-large bid to the big-dance come March. If the Cats want ANY chance of being dangerous (and/or making a push to the Sweet 16 & beyond) come March/April, however, they’ll need the heart & soul of their team to (be available; and to) bring up the ball as Nova’s primary ball-handler (/point-guard) like he was (for the second-half of last season &) alongside Collin Gillespie during that epic tournament-run (to the Final Four).

While ‘Nova’s 6-foot 5-inch 2/3 - guard, Jordan Longino, proved he could handle the ball (to some degree) against certain opponents (and) since Moore injured his knee, the Germantown Academy product’s ability to bring-up & handle the ball is matchup-dependent; meaning it can’t be relied upon game after game. Prior to the Cats’ (latest) thrashing at the hands of the Red Storm, Nova was doing a nice job (of) piecing together offensive possessions with different players (assigned to) bringing up the ball ; whether it was (up to) Bamba, Armstrong, Longino, Hart, or Arcidiacono filling the void (in handling the ball).

Given that the health of Moore’s knee is (still) a huge concern, Nova must continue to embrace a “hope for the best, plan for the worst” mindset; which entails dedicating its practices to improving its press-attack and its half-court offense. While (it’s true) Nova can’t be expected to find lights-out shooters (like Hausen) who can hit big perimeter shots during their (upcoming) Big East games, we should be able to anticipate guys like Burton & Longino coming up bigger (offensively) than they have been (lately).

Dissimilar to the kind of depth that Nova possesses on its roster, that of St. John’s is equipped with shooters/scorers that can step up when called upon; including freshman sharpshooter Brady Dunlap who dropped 15 points in 31 minutes (of action) against ‘Nova. Despite the 6-foot 7-inch shooter’s (per-game) averages of 3.4 points and (/in) 10 minutes (of playing time), Pitino had enough faith in the kid to put him in the game against the Cats; and the 3-&-D small-forward answered the bell by nailing 5 of his 8 shots. Meanwhile, the Cats’ best shooter (in), Brendan Hausen, saw a good amount of time on the floor (via 24 mins) and was held to just 5 points on 2-of-5 shooting (& 1-4 from 3).

One could argue that Neptune’s decision to play Hausen for as long as he did was a mistake. But, being in Neptune’s shoes means you’re forced to watch your guys routinely struggle to score; and that’s no-picnic. As of now, Hausen is a shooter’s shooter; a less-athletic, one-way guard who doesn’t put up much resistance defensively and (he) isn’t very comfortable (w/) putting the ball on-the-deck. Armstrong, on the other hand, is Nova’s most capable ball-handler in the absence of (/not including) Justin Moore; but he’s not a confident shooter.

For a stretch that lasted a few games, Hakim Hart had his moments (w/) shooting the basketball (well) from the perimeter. By the time the Cats tipped-off against the Red Storm, however, Hart’s luck had clearly run-out; and any hope (that) any one had regarding the Roman Catholic product being a dependable perimeter-shooter (for the Cats) must’ve been predicated on (either) not watching the young man’s push-shot or choosing to ignore his form’s deficiencies. Still, Hart was able to chip-in via 6 points on 3-of-7 shooting against St. John’s and (moving forward) mustn’t shy away from shooting.

Once ‘Nova checks off the dud part of its Big East schedule on the 12th of January by squaring-off against DePaul for the second time, the squad faces a trio of brutally tough opponents in (/who are) Marquette, UConn, and St. John’s for its next three-games. Like St. John’s, Marquette’s a gifted, physical defensive-team ; with not as much size and even more of an offensive-punch. Up to now, Marquette’s biggest weakness is rebounding; and if Nova has plans of pulling-off a large-upset they’re going to have to crash the glass, beat the press, and have a couple/few scorers step-up. If Hausen’s getting exposed defensively and (he) isn’t breaking in-to double-figures (-scoring) or sniffing-it, Neptune has to get-on Tyler Burton and encourage him to impose his will offensively.

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Here’s what I’d tell him :

Tyler, you averaged 19 PPG last season for a reason (and) at a Division 1 program; & not for some (mediocre) D-2/3 team. Remind yourself (that) we recruited you because you can play; and we all know your success (at Richmond) wasn’t an accident or some act of God. I’ve seen you (both) get to the cup at-will during practice and shoot the ball w/ confidence. I’m not asking you to drop 19 points. I’m asking you to remind yourself who you are; and you’re a strong, physical, aggressive scorer who can get it done at multiple levels (of the defense). It’s time to trust the practice you’ve already put-in. Be yourself (and) ; Go dominate.

Let’s go Nova.