As college basketball inches closer towards postseason play, the Big East may be the most intriguing conference in the nation. Villanova has dropped two of its last three games, allowing Xavier to increase its lead. However, two teams sitting in the cellar of the conference have put the remaining conference members on notice with their play as of late.
St. John’s, previously winless in Big East play, has won its last four games. They knocked off then-No. 4 Duke and then-No. 1 Villanova in back-to-back games before defeating Marquette and squeaking past DePaul. Coach Chris Mullin has his team flying high and playing with a high level of confidence.
Meanwhile, the Georgetown Hoyas pushed No. 4 Xavier to its limit in a crushing 96-91 overtime loss. The Hoyas failed to close out the Providence Friars in a 73-69 loss due to a controversial foul call with under five seconds to play. Coach Patrick Ewing’s squad responded with convincing victories over Seton Hall and Butler.
The recent increase of competitiveness in St. John’s and Georgetown certainly raises the parity of play in the Big East down the stretch. The race to avoid falling into the seventh seed and face the prospect of playing St. John’s in the opening round of the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden has opposing coaches nervous. Let’s examine the factors that have allowed both of these teams to secure noticeable upsets of late.
St. John’s: Dominant Guard Play
During the resurgence of St. John’s, sophomore guard Shamorie Ponds has been unstoppable. During the Red Storm’s four-game winning streak, Ponds has averaged 32.3 points, five assists and 2.3 steals per game.
After sophomore guard Marcus Lovett was ruled out for the season with a left knee injury, Mullin called on Ponds to carry the load even more so than before.
Ponds has always been a talented scorer off the dribble, but he has worked to involve his teammates more during this stretch. To couple this, Ponds has notched up his defensive intensity, harassing opposing guards all night.
Mullin typically rolls out a six-man rotation each game. As a result, Ponds has played all 40 minutes in every game during the Johnnies’ four-game winning streak. Fans of the Red Storm have to be slightly concerned about Ponds developing fatigue come postseason play as his playing rate is not sustainable.
Georgetown: A Big One-Two Punch
Back in November of 2017, Ewing told the media that if Georgetown was going to remain competitive come Big East play, they needed a big season from junior center Jessie Govan. Govan, while having some ups and downs in Big East play, has largely lived up to the hype. Govan has been a reliable rock in the Hoyas offense, averaging 16.7 points while shooting 50.2 percent and grabbing 10 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.
However, the player who has brought Georgetown to the next level this season has not been Govan, but junior forward Marcus Derrickson. Derrickson has been the go-to player in the clutch all season, nailing two game-winning 3-pointers from NBA range against St. John’s and Seton Hall. Derrickson served as the offensive catalyst in Georgetown’s 87-83 upset at Butler, scoring 27 points while shooting 84.6 percent.
Govan and Derrickson arguably form the most formidable one-two punch on the block in the Big East. Georgetown has had difficulty in some games properly utilizing both of them as opponents have effectively doubled both big men, forcing the Hoyas into turnovers.
However, Ewing has seen more production from his guards, in particular graduate transfer Trey Dickerson, who scored 18 points off the bench against Butler. This newfound scoring threat has forced opponents off the double, allowing Derrickson and Govan to feast on single coverage.
St. John’s: Scoring by Committee
Outside of Ponds, Mullin lacks a consistent scoring option, which could prove problematic come postseason play. However, the Red Storm have survived by getting key contributions from different players night in and night out based on matchups.
In its 81-77 win over Duke, St. John’s saw senior guard Bashir Ahmed and junior forward Tariq Owens score 19 and 17 points respectively. Ponds and Owens capitalized on Duke’s porous interior defense while Ahmed shot 75 percent from 3-point range.
However, in St. John’s upset win at Villanova, Owens and Ahmed remained relatively quiet on the offensive end. Instead, sophomore guard Justin Simon poured in 16 points along with 10 rebounds and seven assists.
While effective, this playing style can be dangerous at times. In St. John’s 86-78 victory over Marquette, the Red Storm required a herculean effort from Ponds to escape with a win. Ponds accounted for more than half of their points with 44. The only other player to reach double-digit scoring for Mullin’s crew was Simon, who scored 16 again. This shows that if opponents are able to limit scoring production outside of Ponds, the Johnnies will have difficulty creating offense in the half-court.
Georgetown: The Kids are Growing Up
Looking beyond Govan and Derrickson, the key to this Hoyas team might be freshmen Jamorko Pickett and Jahvon Blair. Pickett was Ewing’s prized recruit this past season after backing out from his commitment to Ole Miss. Early in the season, both freshmen struggled with shot selection and limiting turnovers.
As the season has progressed, both freshmen have progressively increased their level of play. Blair sparked the Hoyas offense in Georgetown’s overtime loss against Xavier, scoring 19 points and shooting 50 percent from 3-point range. Blair only turned the ball over twice in this contest.
Pickett has become more comfortable utilizing his 6-foot-7 frame to shoot over defenders and alter shots on defense. Pickett scored 18 points and blocked two shots in Georgetown’s 83-80 win over Seton Hall.
While Ewing has seen encouraging steps of growth from both players, Blair and Pickett are still freshmen, which means that struggles will not magically disappear. Blair’s shot has seemingly been flat the past two outings, resulting in him forcing shots outside and taking contested attempts off of wild drives to the hoop.
Pickett still has difficulty taking defenders off of the dribble, which is something that Butler took advantage of. Pickett ended up turning the ball over five times in that contest.
Featured image by Wendell Cruz/Finish First Photos.
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