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#17 Marquette Men’s Basketball Big East Preview Primer: at RV St. John’s

The Golden Eagles head to Madison Square Garden with an eye on a second straight win.

NCAA Basketball: Merrimack at St. John Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

#17 Marquette Golden Eagles (12-5, 3-3 Big East) at RV St. John’s Red Storm (12-6, 4-3 Big East)

Date: Saturday, January 20, 2024
Time: 11am Central
Location: Madison Square Garden, New York, New York

Marquette Stats Leaders

Points: Kam Jones, 15.3 ppg
Rebounds: Oso Ighodaro, 6.9 rpg
Assists: Tyler Kolek, 6.6 apg

St. John’s Stats Leaders

Points: Joel Soriano, 16.4 ppg
Rebounds: Joel Soriano, 9.8 rpg
Assists: Daniss Jenkins, 5.9 apg

KenPom.com Rankings

Marquette: #19
St. John’s: #38
Game Projection: Marquette has a 52% chance of victory, with a predicted score of 77-76.

So Far This Season: On the whole, St. John’s has been better than expected..... as long as the expectation that you’re talking about is what the computers thought they were going to be. On top of that, the Red Storm have taken the long way around to being better than expected.

KenPom.com started off the year ranking SJU at #59 in the country, while BartTorvik.com had them at #53. Those are two algorithm essentially agreeing that the Johnnies were on the fringe of consideration for an NCAA tournament bid to start the season..... and yet, they were the unofficial #28 team in the country in the preseason Associated Press poll because five voters — including Seth Davis at #19 — believed that new head coach Rick Pitino was going to instantly make St. John’s a contender.

Then they lost at home to Michigan in the Gavitt Tipoff Games. Then they lost to Dayton in the semifinals of the Charleston Classic. That 2-2 start dropped them to #81 in KenPom and #63 in Torvik. It’s not great.

Things turned around from there as St. John’s won 10 of their next 12 games, including dropping Xavier in their Big East opener and running their league record to 4-1 with a narrow loss at UConn. Unfortunately, their other loss in that run was to a going-nowhere Boston College team at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In any case, that run pushed the Johnnies into the top 40 in KenPom and as high as #16 in Torvik.

But that’s not the last thing that they’ve done, as their last two games were a narrow loss at Creighton and a shelling on the road against Seton Hall where they gave up a 28-0 run bridging halftime. They were up 56-47 midway through the second half before giving up a run to the Bluejays, but they still led 65-64 with two minutes to go.... they just never scored again. We can give them the tiniest of passes for this past Tuesday night at The Rock, as Rick Pitino was not with the team after testing positive for COVID, and 2023 Ivy League Player of the Year Jordan Dingle was also absent for the first time this season.

Tempo Free Fun: As all over the map St. John’s has been this season, we have to say this about them. If the season ended on Thursday night, the Red Storm would be a single digit seed in the NCAA tournament. They currently project to finish 12-8 in the Big East, and that would set them up as a #7 seed in the national championship field. This is a good team that plays good basketball, and Marquette has to take them that seriously. I’m not a mind reader or a precog, but I presume that MU head coach Shaka Smart will say something to the effect of “Hey, what happened the last time we were in this building?” and then “How hard did we have to work to make that happen?” when he’s told that MU won the Big East tournament championship game on their most recent visit to The World’s Most Famous Arena. That’s the kind of mindset that the Golden Eagles will need to move back above .500 in Big East play at sunset on Saturday night.

In fact, Marquette might have to take St. John’s more seriously than a cursory examination of their record and their computer numbers might suggest. Since the first of the year, or since freshman Brady Dunlap started earning regular rotation minutes for the Red Storm, depending on how you feel about it, St. John’s has been the #28 team in the country. That’s by way of BartTorvik.com’s handy dandy data sorting, and they’ve got a top 50 ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency in that time as well. For comparison’s sake: Marquette has been playing like the #48 team in the country in that time, ranking in the 70s in both offense and defense. If you’re inclined to think about things that way, those kind of numbers have the Red Storm favored by nearly eight points on Saturday.

You know what’s weird about the way St. John’s plays? They have a bottom 70 three-point attempt rate and they have a leading scorer and rebounder in Joel Soriano that measures in at 6’11” and 255 pounds..... but the Johnnies are actively bad at getting to the free throw line. KenPom has them at #304 in the country in FT attempt rate.... although through seven Big East games, they have been better than their season average and currently rank #2 in the league there. Given that they are an elite offensive rebounding team, I just figured that they would have ended up accidentally lucking themselves into a decent amount of free throws, but that’s clearly not happening.

Speaking of that elite rebounding, they’re #6 in the country. Not joking when I said elite. Soriano, Mr. Double-Double himself, is a top 40 offensive rebounder in terms of rate. To a certain extent, St. John’s entire offense is dependent on Soriano hauling in four of their misses per game for a second chance. The Red Storm shoot less than 50% inside the three-point arc as a team, even with Soriano shooting 63% and leading the team in attempts. They’re a perfectly acceptable long range shooting team, connecting 34% from outside, but that’s not great in terms of a national average, as that ranks #150, almost right in the middle of the nation. But that rebounding number, hauling in nearly 40% of their misses, helps the Red Storm average nearly six more shots per game that their opponents. If you give anyone enough chances, they will put the ball in the basket, especially when that second try is usually Soriano at point blank range.

To drive the point home: Four of their six losses this season have come when the Red Storm were held under their current season average for offensive rebounding rate. Three of them — all three losses in Big East play, in fact — came when they were held to 30% or lower. For context: Marquette averages 27% of their missed attempts coming back as a second chance on a possession, and that ranks #254 in the country. If you make St. John’s look sub-par on the offensive glass, it gets much easier to beat them.

Weirdly, St. John’s is an awful defensive rebounding team. That tends to make me think that SJU is an awful rebounding team but they get great offensive rebounding numbers because the coaching staff is making that a priority more than anything else. SJU ranks #300 in the country in defensive rebounding rate per KenPom.com, and so that makes me think that might be a scenario where the Golden Eagles can focus on crashing the glass to maximize their offensive potential. Offensive efficiency against the Red Storm tilts the table in your favor, as they have lost each of the four times that they’ve allowed more than 111 points per 100 possessions. If you can get to the rim — and boy, did we watch Marquette get to the rim against Villanova — you can beat them. Dayton, Michigan, and Boston College all shot at least 56% on two point buckets against the Johnnies, and all three walked away with a win. That’s easier said than done, as St. John’s is a top 50 two-point shooting defense and Soriano is top 125 in the country in block rate. But if you can figure it out, and Marquette is definitely a team that wants to figure out how to get to the rack regularly, that’s a pathway to success. Is that a lot of Oso Ighodaro in the high post to draw Soriano away from the rim? Maybe, and we know how well Ighodaro handles himself both shooting and passing from up there.

Last thing! It’s unclear as to whether or not Rick Pitino or Jordan Dingle will return to the bench for St. John’s in this game. I tend to think that the 71 year old Pitino isn’t going to bounce back from COVID enough to be on the bench four days after he missed a game because of it, but I’m not his personal physician, either. I’m not going to go so far as to say that SJU lost to Seton Hall by 15 because Pitino wasn’t on the bench.... but I am going to say that they don’t give up a 13-2 run to open the game or a 28-0 run bridging halftime if he’s directing traffic. No disrespect to associated head coach Steve Masiello or anyone else on that staff, but we’re talking about Rick Pitino here. The Hall Of Famer is going to be able to pick up on a problem for his team in less than 15 seconds, and that’s just not something that you can teach to another human being.

Dingle’s absence presents an interesting piece of the puzzle for the Red Storm. Tuesday was the first time that he missed a game all season, but he had been coming off the bench in five of SJU’s previous eight games. Hoop Explorer notes that the Red Storm offense suffers greatly without Dingle this season, and that includes the 40 minutes against Seton Hall on Tuesday night where they averaged less than a point per possession. There’s nothing about his stat line that immediately jumps out at you as the reason why they drop off like that — his second best KenPom comparison for this season is 2014 Todd Mayo! — but when you’re looking to avoid your third loss in four games, you don’t question why you suddenly have an advantage handed to you.

Stat Watch: Oso Ighodaro needs one block to hit 100 for his career as well as tie Ousmane Barro for the 11th most in program history.

Stat Watch #2: Kam Jones needs four made three-pointers to tie and five to pass Brian Wardle for the 10th most in program history.

Stat Watch #3: Kam Jones needs 10 points to pass Ron Curry for the 45th most in program history. He needs 12 to pass Rube Schulz for 44th place, 18 to pass Chris Crawford for 43rd, and 19 to pass both Scott Merritt and Jae Crowder for 41st place.

Marquette Last 10 Games: 6-4, with Monday’s win ending a two game losing skid

St. John’s Last 10 Games: 6-4, with losses in each of their last two games, both coming on the road.

All-Time Series: Marquette leads, 27-16

Current Streak: Marquette has won four straight against St. John’s and seven of the last nine.