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Wisconsin vs. St. John's preview: B5Q grills Rumble in the Garden

A Friday night season opener looms large for both Wisconsin and St. John's, who will square off in the first-ever collegiate game played at the new Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. Pico from Rumble in the Garden helps us get acquainted with St. John's through some insightful Q&A.

Center Chris Obekpa leads a stingy St. John's defense against Wisconsin.
Center Chris Obekpa leads a stingy St. John's defense against Wisconsin.

The waiting is over, ladies and gentlemen. The 2013-14 basketball season is upon us.

Wisconsin opens Bo Ryan's 13th campaign in an unfamiliar place, as it helps open a brand new venue that has a bit of old school flavor. The Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D., hosts Wisconsin and St. John's at 6 p.m. CST in a game you can find on the Big Ten Network. The No. 20 Badgers have been installed as a 3 1/2-point favorite in Vegas; Ken Pomeroy predicts a 64-61 Wisconsin win in 64 possessions with 64% confidence. It should be a good one.

Neither team's fans quite know what to expect in such a high-profile opener. So we asked Norman Rose (aka Pico) from Rumble in the Garden, SB Nation's fine St. John's blog, what we can expect to see from the Red Storm on the court ... plus I prodded him for some WARM SPORTS TAKES near the end.

B5Q: St. John's is now entering Year Four of Steve Lavin's tenure, having gotten worse each season despite pulling in back-to-back Top 10 recruiting classes. Is there positive momentum in the program? It's possible those recruiting classes could have been all about quantity and hype (*gasp*) rather than true quality, but you're going to have to break down what's happened to those youngsters.

Rumble in the Garden: On their face, given the circumstances -- a team with 10 seniors in 2010-11 when Lavin took over who all graduated, leaving one returnee who was a better fit at Division II Fairmont State -- the records aren't necessarily egregious.

But for a team that seemed to have so much hype, the results are disappointing. I'd say the hype around the classes was somewhat unwarranted, and there are some extenuating circumstances; but some fans are rightfully antsy that the promise of high-level winning hasn't been achieved yet.

First, the 2011-12 recruiting class was the hyped, top-10 class. But in rankings, credit is given with the same weight for bringing in a quantity of very good players AND bringing in a player who can carry the team. St. John's recruiting class didn't have any McDonald's All-Americans, just a number of top-100 players.

The recruiting class the second year... it was good, but it wasn't a top-10 class (any talk to that effect is puffery and bloviation). Chris Obekpa and JaKarr Sampson were impact top-100 players, and Orlando Sanchez should have been. The rest? Players with potential later down the line.

The upshot is that players the Red Storm brought in aren't the top-20 players that one puts on the court to carry the team.

Worse, a number of players have left:

- Speedy guard Nurideen Lindsey after less than ten games in a huff about being coached

- Norvelle Pelle, who never became eligible

- Moe Harkless, who went pro after one year and is starting for the Orlando Magic

- Dwayne Polee, riding the bench at San Diego State

- Amir Garrett, who transferred back home to LA for more playing time

There is positive momentum in the program. The talent base is strong, even if the players are raw. When they're on -- and later I'll talk about what "on" means for this team -- they look impressive. For Lavin, growth has been a slow process. It doesn't help that the players he brought in are (generally) highly-regarded for raw athleticism, not their offensive skill sets.

B5Q: Lavin is most famous around these parts for being a pro-Badger broadcaster who dubbed Brian Butch "The Polar Bear" back in the day. But whose approval rating is higher in NYC -- Lavin's or his wife Mary Ann Jarou's?

RITG: Mary Ann is lovely, but she's been pretty quiet. And fans have not yet turned on Lavin - though we get the occasional email or comment frustrated with the progress of the team.

B5Q: Last year the Red Storm was awful on offense. With basically no personnel losses from that team, how confident are you that improvement from the same group can produce markedly better results?

RITG: The results should be better; "markedly" would be a stretch, though there are reasons to think the team can be offensively improved.

There are changes. At guard, freshman Rysheed Jordan comes ready to make an impact. In exhibition play, he looks poised with the ball and balanced on his shot, and he has the skill to drive even against zone defenses.

Max Hooper is a three-point specialist. The jury is out on how well he'll be able to play, but when he's on and confident, he has a quick stroke. Every three he takes changes the Red Storm's shot mix, which skewed way too heavily towards the long- or mid-range 2-point jump shot.

Having Jordan and Hooper along with the returning guards and wings and Orlando Sanchez (now eligible after a season-long back-and-forth with the NCAA) should give enough depth to vary the defensive looks, which would ideally improve the pressure and force turnovers. In the open court, the Red Storm can be vicious finishers.

As for the returnees...

JaKarr Sampson's game last year was limited to the pull-up jump shot and occasional transition dunk. He looks to be expanding that game in preseason play. Phil Greene and Sir`Dominic Pointer's offense may have improved. D`Angelo Harrison is back and hopefully more focused than he was during much of Big East play. Orlando Sanchez is an intelligent high-post facilitator.

B5Q: Between leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison, Jakarr Sampson, and Sir'Dominic Pointer, St. John's seems to be a collection of young, long athletes across the board, much like several teams (N.C. State, Cal) which Wisconsin has dismantled in the past. Can you convince our readers why this team has what it takes to impose it's own will on the Badgers on a neutral court?

RITG: The NC State similarity I see -- both Gottfried and Lavin were assistants under Jim Harrick at UCLA, maybe they were taught that long athletes are all a coach needs! I never thought of Cal as that athletic, but I also never see them play.

What to worry about for the Bucky's 5th Quarter readers:

1. I don't know what this team will look like. I'm not sure Lavin knows what this team will look like. And that means Wisconsin might not know what to expect.

2. The defense -- which I will talk about next -- is very disruptive.

3. And Bo Ryan's proclivity for man defense will be interesting to see; St. John's struggled for much of Big East play because most opponents played mostly zone . Marquette did not, and Marquette needed a Vander Blue layup at the buzzer to win.

Against man defenses, the Johnnies' offense looks competent. Screens work to free up Harrison, who can drop 20 left unchecked. Phil Greene IV can create shots. JaKarr Sampson can drive. They're not unstoppable, but when they're on, they can freelance and out-athlete their way to buckets.

B5Q: Chris Obekpa is the best shot blocker in the nation, turning back nearly 6.5 shots per 40 minutes last season. Is the St. John's defense built around him or is he just one piece of a good defensive squad?

RITG: Obekpa collects the accolades and he really transformed the St. John's defense from a unit at the bottom of the Big East to a mid-pack unit rating below Louisville, Pitt, Georgetown, Syracuse, and Villanova. The success rate on two-point shots dropped from 50% in 2012 to 44% in 2013, thanks in part to his shot deterrence.

But it's not just him. Pointer forces steals, defends the opponents' best player, and blocks shots; Sampson blocks shots; Sanchez bothers shots. The defense is solid at funneling opponents inside to difficulty in the paint. The defense is really good, very bothersome. What it fails at is stopping three-point shooters. Between a mix of not picking up shooters, and a zone that packed the paint, opponents could see windows of success on the wings. Tall wings who can shoot also provided a problem.

B5Q: The Johnnies played two exhibitions in the preseason against Division II opponents. Though they blew out Humboldt State by 67 points on Monday, they barely squeaked by San Francisco State, 82-80, before that. What the heck happened there?

RITG: Against San Francisco State, the team came out lackluster, as if it were a scrimmage against their buddies back home. They didn't bother the shooters, they allowed the SF State Gators clean looks all over the court, and then they started playing an individualistic, impatient style to try to get back into the game.

They didn't get back on defense and they shot like hot wet garbage on garbage day in the East Village.

B5Q: It's practically obligatory to ask: what are your thoughts about the new Big East, how it stacks up against the other power conferences, and what effect its formation will have on founding members like St. John's?

RITG: The new Big East isn't as top-heavy as the ACC or even the Big Ten, but it's good to have the security of a league that's not fraying at every edge. One issue the league will have is that it's even -- too even. There isn't a Louisville or Duke that a team can knock off to vault them back into NCAA consideration, and few teams with strong recent NCAA Tournament histories.

B5Q: Finally, as a fan of a team that had an American Indian nickname (Redmen) replaced by an inanimate object, I was wondering if you had any thoughts or unique perspective on the current debate over the Washington Redskins' nickname. Are there any number of stages of grief or recovery that St. John's fans had to go through when their team "lost" its identity?

RITG: It depends on the fan. I have watched St. John's since I was fairly young (Mark Jackson era), but not as intently as I did later. I think the Redmen name didn't have to be a slur, but once headdresses came out and the caricature logo, it wasn't okay.

I'll add a thought: if the Redmen name isn't about Native Americans, which it wasn't at first, then the "Red Storm" name is actually less inanimate than a color.

For me, I don't think the "Redskin" name is right. I'm not bothered by Native American names, per se. An argument can be made against "Seminoles" and "Fighting Sioux", but those strike me more like awesome remembrances. But given the nation's history and near-extermination of Native Americans, using actual slurs isn't okay, especially with the iconography.

It's a business decision whether or not to change the name, I suppose, and I'm not (and hopefully will never be) a D.C. resident, so I don't have to live with the decisions either way. I know that many people feel that it's a "PC" decision (calling something PC is a wide catch-all brush) being forced by people who don't understand the honor or some crap. But with respect to the histories, using a slur as a name is not okay.

Redskin was never a name of honor, even if some try to reclaim it like other ethnic groups reclaim the slurs used against them. It still would not be okay to call a team the [N-word] or the [derogatory word for Japanese] or the Pasty British Imperialists (there's no word for that).

That's my personal feeling, my fellow writers may or may not agree.

Well, I learned something about the Redmen nickname I didn't know thanks to Norman, and I like his point about St. John's as an "unknown quantity" being dangerous for Wisconsin. Follow him on Twitter @ECoastBias and the whole Rumble crew @rumbleSBN.


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