There are at times truths in stereotypes, perhaps lazy bits of truth but truths nonetheless and when St. John’s comes to Duke we see one come to life: the one where Duke’s rivals say everyone comes from New Jersey or New York.
Well that’s not true but a lot certainly do and there is a palpable excitement when St. John’s comes to town that doesn’t show up for any other non-conference rival.
You can spot the city kids, some of them greybeards, who have an extra spring in their step for this game. It’s kind of cool to see really.
It’s a precursor of March when all the corruption, Adidas and FBI, the cheating and God help us even the academic fraud is forgotten as the kids who play get totally caught up in the best sports event of the year.
We get a small taste of that with Duke-St. John’s from the fans and certainly from the players.
Duke likes playing in the Garden and beats St. John’s there more often than they lose. And while St. John’s doesn’t win much in Cameron, they remain the last non-conference team to win here in 2000.
That’s a pretty impressive streak wouldn’t you say?
That team was coached by Mike Jarvis, who left under a bit of a cloud in 2003 but things got worse after he was let go: after a road trip to Pitt, some of the players picked up a stripper and offered her $1,000 for various members of the team to engage her services, shall we say.
They refused to pay her and kicked her out and she called the police and accused the team of gang rape, a charge which was quickly disproved when one of the players admitted to having recorded the entire sordid affair.
The President of St. John’s, Father Harrington, reminded the players that they were at a Catholic school, generally by dismissing them from said school, and St. John’s was left to pick up the pieces again.
Interim coach Kevin Clark was not retained and St. John’s opted for Kansas assistant Norm Roberts.
Six years later the school hired former UCLA coach Steve Lavin, who defined the word inconsistent, kept him for five years, then tried former Charlotte Bobcats Mike Dunlap for two years before extending the NBA experiment to former Johnnies great Chris Mullin who was, incidentally, one of Mike Krzyzewski’s first major targets at Duke.
Mullin has had a distinguished basketball career. He is in the Naismith Hall of Fame twice, once for the Dream Team and once as an individual player. He’s in the College Basketball Hall of Fame as well. He’s one of only a handful of Golden State Warriors to see his number retired.
Mullin is a good fit at St. John’s in that, like Coach K, he’s a devout Catholic, but his coaching acumen is not yet universally acclaimed.
His first year at St. John’s he was just 8-24, which was his first season so no big deal.
His second year the Johnnies were 14-19 and last season, they finished 16-17 including a memorable upset of Duke.
This year so far St. John’s is 16-5 but against a much criticized schedule. The tougher non-conference opponents included Rutgers, Cal, VCU, Georgia Tech and Princeton.
Rutgers is 11-9 and in 8th place in the Big Ten, Cal is 5-15 and 0-8 in the woeful PAC-12, VCU is 14-6 and in 5th place in the A-10, Princeton is 10-5 and tied for first in the Ivy while Georgia Tech, as ACC fans know, is tough but limited and currently 11-10 and at 3-5 in 9th place in the ACC.
And those are the better non-conference teams on the schedule.
The Big East is having a down year with only Marquette and Loyola being national factors, and in conference play the Johnnies are 4-5 with losses to Seton Hall, Villanova, DePaul, Butler and Georgetown. The wins are over Georgetown, Creighton twice and, most impressively, Marquette.
Mullin has taken some heat for appearing to be a bit disengaged which is probably not fair but that’s part of his story right now, for better or worse.
He’s not quite on the hot seat but it might be getting warm.
Needless to say, a win at Duke would help his case immensely and he’s already proven he can do it.
Like last year, one of the Johnnies best weapons is 6-1 junior Shamorie Ponds, who is averaging 20.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 5.7 apg and 2.8 spg.
He’s a legitimate NBA prospect and a real tough guy to guard.
St. John’s rotation goes about eight deep.
It also includes Justin Simon, a 6-5 junior (10.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 3 apg), Mustapha Heron also a 6-5 junior (15.5 ppg, 5 rpg and 1.6 apg), LJ Figueroa, a 6-6 sophomore (14.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2 apg), Bryan Trimble, a 6-3 sophomore (2.4 ppg, 1.8 rpg) and Sedee Keita a 6-9 sophomore (1.9 ppg, 2.1 rpg).
Over the years we’ve gotten used to seeing St. John’s not shoot well from outside, preferring to drive at nearly every opportunity. That’s not so much the case now: Dixon and Herron are both shooting about 43% from deep. Figueroa checks in at 41.2%. Clark is averaging 39.2% and Ponds is a very respectable 38.8%. Trimble is not far behind at 34.9%.
Collectively St. John’s shoots 38.5% from three point range which is considerably better than Duke’s 31.1%.
Defending St John’s starts with defending Ponds and Duke is fortunate to have Tre Jones, who has emerged as an absolutely superb on-ball defender. If Ponds lights him up, he’s going to have earned it.
Don’t forget that he hit Duke for 31 points last season.
And defense is going to be important in this game because last time out, St. John’s just shredded a decent Creighton team on the road.
According to the school’s site, “[b]eginning with a 15-5 run to close the first half, St. John’s shot 71.4 percent (20-of-28) from the floor and 58.8 percent (10-of-17) from beyond the arc over the final 22:30 of game action. The Red Storm missed just one shot from two-point range.”
By any standard, that’s red hot.
Ponds had 26 points, eight boards, eight assists and six steals.
That’s within shouting distance of a quadruple double.
St. John’s has been active on the transfer market: Heron came from Auburn, Simon from Arizona, Clark from Michigan State, Dixon from Quinnipiac and Keita from South Carolina. Two more guys are sitting out this season.
St. John’s will bring a great backcourt to Cameron and if you focus too much on Ponds Heron will gut you (note to St. John’s AD Mike Cragg: you have Heron and Pond. We hope you’re using that).
It’s a better shooting St. John’s team than we’ve seen in years but hasn’t completely proven itself.
Nonetheless, we expect to see a tough, versatile group in Cameron Saturday and a team with vastly more experience than Duke has.
Could St. John’s be the first non-ACC team to beat Duke in Cameron this century? The first since they did it in 2000?
Well they did beat Duke in the Garden last year despite an 11-game losing streak and a deeply talented Blue Devils team. You’d be nuts to say they can’t win this time too.
And if Duke can’t hit jumpers or gets in foul trouble or both, look out.