Better Know An Opponent: St. John’s

The Gamecocks take to the road for the first time this season, heading up to the land where Akeem Joffer once went to find his bride (that’s the only Coming to America joke we’ll include here, but damnit, we were making one, so it’s good we got it out early).

South Carolina heads to Carnesecca Arena with a 5-1 record.  Interestingly, St. John’s splits its home games between Carnesecca and Madison Square Garden, and I know Coach Martin will be disappointed that we’re playing the smaller venue.  That said, Carolina will have a chance to play a slightly larger New York arena next month, when they had to Brooklyn to face the Manhattan Jaspers in the Nets new arena.

St. John’s sports an incredibly young team – every player with meaningful minutes is either a sophomore or a freshman.  They also don’t go deep at all, playing three players 75% or more of the minutes.

The Four Factors

Taken from KenPom.com.  The parenthetical indicates the national rank (345 teams).

USC O STJ D STJ O USC D
eFG 54.6 (30) 48.2 (171) 50.3 (108) 50.0 (220)
TO% 28.5 (337) 20.1 (204) 16.0 (21) 21.1 (165)
OReb% 44.6 (6) 32.9 (185) 27.1 (279) 30.1 (121)
FTR 40.9 (104) 24.9 (26) 25.8 (320) 35.3 (153)
Adj. Pace 65.4 (238) 68.3 (105)

A first note about these numbers – they are not adjusted for strength of schedule.  Thus, in every instance, take away some credit from the Gamecocks and add some to St. John’s, as they have faced a far more formidable schedule (losing two neutral court games to Murray State and Baylor, but wins over stronger mid-majors such as Charleston and Detroit) than Carolina has thus far.  A second note – we’re only 6 games into the season.  We’re learning more about the teams, their makeup, their personnel, and so on, but none of this is gospel yet.  We have about 20% of the data we’ll have by the end of the season.  Take all of the below as informed, but imperfect.

With that out of the way, the Johnnies pose an interesting test for Carolina’s man defense.  They rarely take 3PAs (less than 20% of FGAs) and don’t get to the line with any frequency, so it’s critical that the Gamecocks can stop them on the inside.  However, that’s where St. John’s excels – they shoot 51.4% from 2PA, and their ability to have success on offense will likely be dictated by their ability to continue making those shots.  They also don’t score particularly often on assists (46.5% of FGMs are assisted, which comes in at 286th in the nation), so creating their own shot is something they can and will do.

South Carolina has played very well on offense with that one critical exception – they can’t seem to stop themselves from turning the ball over.  While Martin offenses have never prized ball security (his Kansas State teams ranged from 19.9-21.6 on their TO%), ending 28.5% of your possessions on turnovers simply isn’t going to win you a lot of ballgames.

Otherwise, credit where it’s due – South Carolina has shooters, and they’ve done a great job shooting thus far.  More importantly, Carolina cleans up its misses, giving it opportunities for more FGAs at the end of the night than the opposition.  If you take more shots and you make more shots, you’ve got a good chance of going home a winner.

Personnel

St. John’s

Player
Min%
Poss%
eFG
3PA%
FTM/FTA
OReb
DReb
TO%
A%
Harrison
86.2
28.9
51.5
40.0%
24/26
5.0
9.7
12.5
8.6
Greene
90.0
22.7
48.7
27.9%
6/8
2.7
11.3
16.4
21.0
Sampson
75.0
22.3
51.6
1.6%
10/12
7.7
15.4
17.1
9.3
Pointer
51.2
18.8
44.8
3.5%
7/15
0.9
18.1
19.9
17.3
Jones
44.2
18.3
51.9
0.0%
4/9
2.2
13.6
20.7
11.3
Garrett
64.2
14.6
55.4
10.7%
8/15
7.5
13.7
17.8
6.3
Obekpa
57.9
12.5
39.1
0.0%
3/7
7.5
12.8
16.5
8.8
Balamou
22.1
12.2
72.7
0.0%
2/2
10.9
8.4
0.0
10.0

D’Angelo Harrison makes this team go.  As a freshman last year, he played 88% of the Red Storm’s minutes, so he’s not unaccustomed to the role.  He hasn’t gotten to the line as much this year as he did last year (but when he gets there, he makes, going 80% last year and sitting at 92% this year), but he’s the clear leader of the team on the offensive end of the floor, taking far and away the most possessions.

He’ll be the focus of our defense.  It’s times like this you wish the matchups worked out a little differently, as I’d be curious to see how Lakeem Jackson could guard Harrison.  Since that’s unlikely to happen (St. John’s starts three players that are 6’6″ or taller, so we can’t afford to rotate Lakeem over to the 6’3″ guard unless we play him with a pick-3 combination of Slawson, Kacinas, Carrera, or Chatkevicius), Page or Smith will be mainly tasked with slowing him down.

It won’t be an easy task.  Harrison is able to do work from every spot on the floor.  Though he takes a large amount of 3PAs (note – 3PA% above is not his shooting from 3, but the number of 3s he takes divided by total field goals), he gets to the bucket plenty as well and gets to the line at a reasonable rate (his FTR (FTA/FGA) is 26%, but given last year’s rate of 45%, that number can be expected to climb), he’ll be a formidable opponent for whoever is tasked with guarding him.

The other primary contributors for St. John’s are their other primary starters (the other two guys playing 75%+ of the minutes) – sophomore guard Phil Greene and freshman forward Jakarr Sampson.  Greene has a similar shot makeup to Harrison in that he takes a fair number of 3PAs but plenty of 2PAs as well.  One of the biggest differences is that Greene hasn’t found a way to translate those 2PAs into FTAs, which hurts his efficientcy.  He’s also not your classic point guard in that his assist rate of 21%, while not bad, isn’t what you’d normally expect from a PG.  However, St. John’s isn’t built around scoring off passes in the way some other teams are, so this shouldn’t be entirely surprising.  He’s their main ball-handler, and does a good job at it, effectively avoiding turnovers while tasked with bringing the ball up the court.

Sampson is a classic forward – he’s only taken one 3PA all season.  However, he (nor any other Johnnie) does not hit the glass particularly hard on either end of the court.  This is likely the area of St. John’s that Carolina will be best placed to exploit on both ends of the court, but limiting their second-chance baskets will be  an important part of Carolina’s defense this evening, as it usually is for them.

It’s not in the numbers above, but Obekpa blocks 20.4% of the 2PAs taken while he’s on the court.  Goodness gracious.  And he’s not the only one – Sampson’s blocking 5.8% and Pointer deflects 6.0%.  Given the way South Carolina’s scored on the inside despite being undersized, it’ll be interesting to see if they can successfully attack the Red Storm’s front line.

The guards will also have their hands full.  For a team plagued by turnovers, it’s not comfortable to see that Pointer and Harrison are stealing the ball on 3.0% and 4.7% of the possessions they’re on the court, respectively.

South Carolina

Player
Min%
Poss%
eFG
3PA%
FTM/FTA
Oreb
Dreb
TO%
A%
Williams
55.2
25.3
63.0
39.1
23/26
2.1
10.1
26.5
14.5
Carrera
24.8
27.3
59.5
4.8
12/13
18.4
26.1
27.3
3.7
Page
68.8
23.4
50.0
50.7
22/26
1.7
15.5
15.8
7.5
Leonard
24.0
20.9
52.9
70.6
0/0
4.8
7.7
46.1
6.5
Jackson
84.8
16.9
67.4
0.0
5/14
11.5
18.0
25.9
15.5
Smith
67.6
19.8
40.8
28.9
15/21
0.8
6.8
32.8
20.5
Kacinas
66.0
17.9
63.0
22.2
14/20
14.7
13.3
37.3
6.8
Richardson
61.2
16.0
58.6
52.8
5/5
5.6
9.8
28.3
17.3
Slawson
46.0
16.5
42.9
17.4
7/8
17.4
14.1
30.5
10.8

Let’s start with the big news.  Two guys not listed in this table – Ellington and Chatkevicius – are making the trip up, and it’ll be interesting to see how much they play.  Given that Martin has gone as many as 10-deep on some of his Kansas State squads, and loves to rotate players out when they aren’t doing what he wants, it wouldn’t surprise me to see both of these guys get some minutes this evening.  And with the way Martin operates, it won’t be a predetermined number – if they play well, they’ll stay on the court.  It’ll be interesting to see how Bruce adapts to Frank’s system.  Bruce didn’t exactly have a stellar TO rate last season (19%), but looking at the numbers above, we’d kill for that.

To be fair to the guys that have played thus far, Martin noted in his press conference yesterday that we play a different system than we did last year, and he expects more turnovers.  To wit:

“Listen, we play a style where we play fast.  We’re asking guys to change how they play – whether it be the freshman or the returning players – offensively.  They’re trying to understand how we’re asking them to play.”  He continued, “The problem I’ve got with our turnovers is that they have cost us directly between 8-12 points a game where we can’t defend the shots that the other team takes because they’re breakaway layups.”

I’ve seen some of this, but not as much in the Elon game (and of course, about 100 people saw the games against Missouri State and UALR, so you’ll have to ask them if this was the case down there).  Notwithstanding, the team needs to get up the learning curve quickly, else they’ll get run out of the gym by St. John’s.  Giving the ball away on 30% of your possessions just won’t work against even above-average teams, let alone the good ones.

Elsewhere, it’ll be interesting to see if and how Brenton Williams’ minutes increase over the course of the season.  He went from opening the season with 13 against UWM (and five of those in OT) to playing 38 against Rider, before going back down to 13 against Missouri State.  I think Brenton’s problems come primarily on the defensive end, but he’s hit shots at a terrific rate this season, and done so quite consistently (his lowest eFG is 42%, and he did that while still taking 18% of the shots available to him against Elon).  He’s also taken Frank’s criticism of rebounding to heart, at least on the defensive end, where he’s grabbing 10.8% of the rebounds when he’s on the court.

LaShay Page continues to take a bulk of Carolina’s shots, and the offensive efficiency seems to rise and fall with him:

Page eFG USC Eff.
UWM 38.89% 106.0
Morgan 53.85% 113.0
Rider 66.67% 120.0
Elon 18.75% 78.0
MizzSt 68.18% 100.0
UALR 54.17% 114.7

In each game, he’s taken between 27-37% of the shots available to him on the floor and played 50% or more of the minutes played, so while this suffers from some sample size issues, when you take that many shots, you’re going to impact how well the team plays overall.  Also, while I’m not willing to call it statistically significant, the correlation there is .75.  Let’s not draw causation from the correlation, but it’s an interesting note here, and it’ll be interesting to see if it continues.

The shooting of Lakeem Jackson and Mindaugas Kacinas continues to impress – eFGs in the 60s are excellent, and even more impressive when you consider that Jackson is taking 17% of the shots the team takes while he’s on the court (it’s widely considered true that, the more shots you take, the less efficient you will be, because each additional shot is probably more challenging than the last one).

On the glass, Kacinas also continues to contribute, particularly on the offensive side, where he and RJ Slawson have both done yeoman’s work getting Carolina second and third opportunities.

Projections and Predictions

KenPom   72-64 L (23%)

TeamRankings  73-64 L (20%)

Vegas: St John’s by 8.5

South Carolina takes to the road for the first time this season to play the best team it’ll have faced thus far this season (at least, until Sunday).

So what are the things to focus on?  While I think Carolina can keep up with St. John’s when the ball is on the Gamecocks’ half of the court, I think they’ll struggle to stop the Red Storm, and in particular, D’Angelo Harrison.  If LaShay Page or one of the other guards can step up and limit him, that helps Carolina solve one of the biggest problems they will face on the evening.

Of course, turnovers will also be an important consideration.  Even against UALR, one of its best games on the year, South Carolina turned the ball over on 32.6% of its possessions.  If that number can’t come down, especially against a St. John’s team that isn’t particularly adept at forcing them, it’ll be difficult for the Gamecocks to keep pace.

Lastly, it’ll be interesting to see how, if at all, Ellington and Chatkevicius impact the roster.  Given how Martin has discussed Chatkevicius’ play thus far, I’d expect Bruce to have the greater chance to impact the game.  But how will he?  Can he?  It’s hard to predict, but it’s certainly a wild card.

Overall, South Carolina just doesn’t match up well enough on the defensive end for my taste.  St. John’s doesn’t turn the ball over, so this game could end up looking a lot like the Elon game, where a double-digit difference in turnover percentage and weak shooting left the Gamecocks for dead.  Not that Carolina can’t overcome that sort of deficit against some teams (hell, it has, bleeding turnovers at a rate of over 15% above its opponent in both wins in Mexico), but it’s not a recipe for success.  As Martin indicates, that rate of turnovers leads to easy buckets for the other team on the other end, which ends up being on average a 3-point swing (if you think of a possession as worth a point, and then concede the breakaway as a 2-point possession).

On current form, it’s hard to predict anything other than a St. John’s victory.  However, there are paths to victory for Carolina.  Let’s see if they find them.

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About marvinnedick

Blogging from the mid-Atlantic on Gamecock sports, as well as general musings on sports theory otherwise.
This entry was posted in 2012-13 Basketball, Better Know An Opponent, Game Previews, St. John's. Bookmark the permalink.

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