St. John’s announced on Monday that Chris Obekpa, the Big East school’s sui generis shot blocker, would miss ten to fourteen days with an ankle injury. The news was seen as having the potential to derail the Red Storm’s NCAA tournament hopes — since the team lost their initial five conference games, SJU has won eight of their last nine and have entered the postseason discussion.
Steve Lavin’s team, though, handily beat Butler earlier this week, but with a season-defining match-up with Villanova looming, it was unclear whether Obekpa would rush back on to the court. Lavin stoked the discussion this afternoon, telling reporters the sophomore center lightly worked out and is feeling “better” — he also mentioned that possibility Obekpa might play against the Wildcats.
Lavin frequently thinks out loud, so while the pronouncement seems like it has merit, it would be very shocking if the center actually takes the court. St. John’s is one of the rare Big East teams that perfectly matches up with Villanova, and Daniel Ochefu, who Obekpa would likely defend, can also be covered by God’sgift Achiuwa (Orlando Sanchez might have been an option, but the forward will miss the game to be with his wife, who recently gave birth to the couple’s first child). However, the fact that Lavin felt the need to utter this tidbit in the presence of reporters just underlines the significance of Saturday’s contest. Obekpa’s shot-blocking is an important, but not crucial, piece of the St. John’s defense, but if the Johnnies don’t win, an NCAA bid will likely skip the Queens-based school for the third straight season. Rather than allow Jay Wright the knowledge Obekpa will definitely not play, Lavin is hoping Villanova at least plans for Obekpa and his 16.5 percent block rate.
Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.
After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.
Video credit: Wyoming Athletics
Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.
Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.
Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.
Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.
Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.
But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.