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.