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St. John’s pressure, transition game important if they want to reach their potential

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BROOKLYN — For the first 20 minutes of the consolation game of the Barclays Center Classic, St. John’s looked, in a word, horrendous. Georgia Tech jumped out to a 19-4 lead at the under 12 timeout and took a 31-24 lead into the break as the Johnnies shot a torrid 31.8% from the floor and 1-for-6 from three.

It was bad enough that the discussion on press row was almost entirely about how bad the Red Storm looked. How could a team with that much talent up and down their lineup possibly be this bad? How can a Big East basketball team look this lost while trying to run their half court offense?

Then the second half came around. The Johnnies threw on their press, they allowed their athleticism and talent to take over, and they headed back to Queens with a 69-58 win after outscoring the Yellow Jackets 45-27 in the final 20 minutes.

“It started with their defense as opposed to speeding it up on offense,” Tech head coach Brian Gregory said after the game. “Their pressure was good in the second half and we didn’t handle it very well.”

That’s putting it mildly.

The difference in the game was a 16-0 run that turned into a 26-6 surge, turning a 46-36 deficit into a 62-52 lead. Steve Lavin put in a lineup heavy on athleticism that overwhelmed the Yellow Jackets, as they turned 20 turnovers into 20 points. During that run, the Johnnies had just a single basket that wasn’t a dunk, a layup or a free throw while keeping Tech from hitting a shot from the floor for more than 12 minutes.

Those are dominating numbers.

“Stops and shutouts are going to lead to runouts, and for us, the press leads to those scoring flurries where we put up points in bunches,” Lavin said.

The Johnnies ooze potential. There may not be a team in the country that can match them when it comes to length, athleticism and depth. JaKarr Sampson and Sir’Dominic Pointer are freaks, Chris Obekpa might be the best shot blocker in the country and their guards — D’angelo Harrison, Phil Greene, Jamal Branch, Rysheed Jordan — are, on paper, better than 95% of the teams in the country.

The issue with this team is two-fold.

For starters, there aren’t many players on this roster with a high basketball IQ, and they aren’t the most skilled players offensively. That’s an issues that is exacerbated by the fact that Steve Lavin isn’t exactly known as an x’s-and-o’s guru. His best season with his players at St. John’s came when he took a year away from the bench to battle cancer and allowed Mike Dunlap to coach the team. The result is a team that either A) doesn’t understand the offense that they are supposed to be running or B) doesn’t run an offense. Neither is a positive.

As a result, if the Johnnies are forced to play a half court game, they are going to struggle, which is why the second half was so important.

This team can be dangerous when they are allowed to press and to get out in transition. There may not be a team outside of the top 25 with a higher ceiling than the Johnnies, it’s just a matter of whether or not this coaching staff can get this group to reach that potential.

No. 22 Cincinnati’s loss to No. 16 Butler shines light on AAC’s struggles

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 10: Head coach Mick Cronin of the Cincinnati Bearcats reacts against the Butler Bulldogs in the first half of the game at Hinkle Fieldhouse on December 10, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Kelan Martin scored 20 points and Andrew Chrabascz added 12 points, four boards and five assists as No. 16 Butler bounced back from a tough loss at Indiana State to beat No. 22 Cincinnati, 75-65.

The Bulldogs had been undefeated on the season prior to the loss to the Sycamores, but their ranking was built on the fact that they had beaten Arizona, who was No. 8 at the time, as well as a trio of high-major programs that look destined for the NIT.

Cincinnati probably isn’t destined for the NIT. Their top 25 ranking is justified, which is what makes this win valuable. Quality non-conference wins matter, and this is just one of a handful of good wins for what has proven to be one of the most top-heavy conferences in the country. Villanova, Creighton, Xavier and Butler all look capable of reaching the Sweet 16 this season.

The opposite is true for Cincinnati, who look like the flag-bearer in a conference that isn’t really all that good. They’re the best team in the AAC this season, but that’s a conference that has consistently disappointed this year. SMU, Temple and UConn have all struggled more than we expected them to. Tulsa and Memphis are in rebuilding mode. Houston was supposed to be good this season but they’ve yet to live up to the preseason hype.

Think about it like this: The only team in the AAC without multiple losses on the season is now UCF. That’s … not ideal, and it’s going to be interesting to see just how many bids the league is able to generate.

Think about it. Temple has beaten West Virginia and Florida State while losing to New Hampshire and UMass. SMU’s best win is either Pitt or TCU, both of whom are borderline tournament teams. UConn beat Syracuse but has some atrocious losses on their resume. Houston beat Rhode Island but lost to Arkansas and LSU. Memphis beat Iowa, but Iowa’s not all that good. UCF’s best win is … Mississippi State?

Cincinnati’s lone quality win is at Iowa State, who is about to drop out of the top 25.

POSTERIZED: Wichita State’s Daishon Smith dunks on Oklahoma big man

WICHITA, KS - NOVEMBER 13:  Guard Daishon Smith of the Wichita State Shockers drives up court past forward Roschon Prince #23 of the Long Beach State 49ers during the first half on November 13, 2016 at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita, Kansas.  (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
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Daishon Smith is 6-foot-1.

Kristian Doolittle is 6-foot-7.

The lil guy won this battle:

Here’s another angle of the dunk, which sent Wichita State’s bench into hysterics:

POSTERIZED: Duke’s Grayson Allen with a Dunk of the Year candidate (VIDEO)

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It looks like Grayson Allen’s toe is healthy. I’d say his explosivness is back:

Whoa.

Yeah.

POSTERIZED: Five-star Class of 2017 guard Trevon Duval dunks on 6’8″ defender

CHARLOTTE, NC - JULY 9: Trevon Duval during the 2015  Under Armour All-America Basketball Camp on July 9, 2015 at Queens College in Charlotte, NC. (Photo by Ned Dishman/Under Armour)
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Class of 2017 point guard Trevon Duval put down a huge poster dunk on a 6’8″ defender on Saturday as the five-star prospect showed why many consider him the top lead guard in high school basketball.

The 6-foot-2 Duval is considered the No. 3 overall prospect in the Class of 2017 by Rivals.

Nigel Hayes shines against as No. 17 Wisconsin beats Marquette

MILWAUKEE, WI - DECEMBER 10:  Nigel Hayes #10 of the Wisconsin Badgers is fouled by Luke Fischer #40 of the Marquette Golden Eagles during the first half of a game at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on December 10, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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What a difference a year makes.

Last season at this time, Wisconsin dropped a home game to a Marquette team that was headed to the NIT.

This year?

The Badgers put six players in double-figures as they went into Milwaukee and knocked off Marquette, 93-84.

Bronson Koenig continued his hot shooting, finishing with 18 points and six assists while shooting 4-for-6 from beyond the arc. Vitto Brown chipped in with 15 points, Khalil Iverson had 16 and Ethan Happ chipped in with 11 despite battling foul trouble all afternoon.

But the really story here – hell, the story of Wisconsin’s season to date – has been the change in the way that Nigel Hayes plays.

Hayes was terrific again on Saturday. He had 17 points, nine boards, four assists and three steals. He shot 6-for-10 from the floor and attempted just a pair of threes, making one of them. He had the ball in his hands when Wisconsin was trying to kill off the game, and, more importantly, head coach Greg Gard has seem to start to take advantage of just how good Hayes can be as a facilitator.

There are a couple of points that need to be made here:

  1. When Hayes plays like this, he deserves to be in the all-american discussion. He’s averaging 18.0 points, 7.3 boards and 6.7 assists in the three games Wisconsin has played against high-major competition since the change, and the Badgers have won five straight games while playing easily their best basketball of the season.
  2. And it’s not just because of the numbers he puts up. When Hayes operates as Wisconsin’s de-facto point guard, it makes everyone else on the roster better. For starters, it allows Koenig to play off the ball, where he seems to be more effective. He’s at his best when he’s hunting shots and trying to create off the bounce, but his aggressiveness can be detrimental when he’s the only one touching the ball. It also means offense runs through Happ more often since Koenig isn’t dominating possession, and it lets guys like Brown space the floor because they’re actually able to get rhythm threes.

As of today, Wisconsin is the favorite to win the Big Ten, even if Indiana is far more likely to end up being a No. 1 seed in March.