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.

Illinois’ injury woes continue as starting center needs knee surgery

George Niang,Abdel Nader,Mike Thorne, Jr.
AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser
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Illinois suffered another blow in what has already turned out to be a brutal season.

Mike Thorne is expected to miss the rest of the season after tearing his meniscus. He reportedly underwent surgery on Monday to repair the injury.

Thorne, a transfer from Charlotte, was starting at center for the Illini and doing a good job of it as well. He was averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 boards, although Illinois has started off the season 3-4.

The reason for that slow start has mainly been those injuries. Tracy Abrams is already out for the season after tearing his achilles, and the Illini training room looked like a M.A.S.H. unit. Kendrick Nunn just returned two games ago from surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament. LeRon Black is still getting back to speed after offseason knee surgery. Jaylon Tate is back after dislocating a finger. Jalen Coleman-Lands was slowed by a stress fracture.

John Groce entered this season on the hot seat, and dealing with all of these injuries certainly isn’t helping his cause.

NEW PODCAST: Recapping Feast Week

Kris Dunn
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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We talk about a lot of stuff of the podcast today, mainly because a lot of stuff happened since we last spoke with you all.

For starters, we need to discuss the ‘realness’ of Syracuse and Xavier. Are they both truly top 15 teams, or do they just have top 15 resumes? We also dive into Chris Mack’s epic troll-job of Dayton at the Advocare Invitational final.

Other topics we touched on: Whether or not Scott is ever going to apologize to Wayne Selden, Wichita State’s tournament hopes, Texas A&M and whether we’d take Ben Simmons, Kris Dunn or Denzel Valentine today.

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes right here. It’s the quickest way to get access on your cell phone or tablet.