As St. John’s gets set for their First Four game against Arizona State Wednesday, here is what to watch for against the Sun Devils.
The moment is finally here for the St. John’s Red Storm. On Wednesday night, they will kick off their NCAA Tournament run in Dayton, Ohio against the Arizona State Sun Devils as part of the First Four (9:10 p.m. ET, TruTV). A win would get St. John’s on a flight to Tulsa, Oklahoma for a Friday matchup with the six seed in the West Region, the Buffalo Bulls.
This season, the Sun Devils finished 22-10 and 12-6 in the Pac-12. While they finished second in their conference, the Pac-12 was down this year as they only got three teams into the big dance thanks to Oregon’s conference tournament win. Nevertheless, despite an overtime loss to the Ducks in the Pac-12 Tourney, Arizona State has won six of their last eight games.
Now, Arizona State did have good wins outside of their league as they had home wins over Kansas and Mississippi State as well as a neutral court victory over Utah State. However, like St. John’s, this team could also lose to anybody as evident by their defeat at the hands of Princeton in December.
Bobby Hurley’s club was in the First Four last year against Syracuse, but this is a completely different team filled with a lot of youth. If you compare their starting lineup against Oregon to the one against St. John’s last year at STAPLES Center, Arizona State only has one starter from that game (Romello White). However, De’Quon Lake and Remy Martin came off the bench last year.
Last season, the two teams played a close battle with Arizona State winning, 82-70. St. John’s only has four players from that team on this year’s squad, so it is tough to read that much into that game. However, the one constant from that game is White and he can be a problem for a Red Storm squad that struggles to rebound.
White had 22 points and nine rebounds in last year’s win, but he isn’t the main focus in this offense. Outside of a 19-point performance against UCLA in the Pac-12 Quarterfinals, he has scored single-digit points in eight of his last nine games. Plus, his rebounds per game went down from 7.1 last year to 5.3 this year.
While White may not be the main factor on the glass, he can team up with one of the newcomers, San Diego State transfer Zylan Cheatham. Cheatham averaged a double-double this season (11.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per game). He has shown the ability to rack up the boards (two 20-plus rebound games this year) as he led the conference in rebounding: The two of them both had 2.3 offensive boards per game. Here are some highlights of Cheatham from this year courtesy of Pac-12 Network:
The main responsibility for Cheatham is going to be on Marvin Clark II. Clark did have 18 points in the matchup last year, but the key for him is that he has to defend without fouling as early foul trouble can get him out of his rhythm. If the Red Storm are going to win this game, they will need Clark to find his shot from the perimeter and keep the rebounding edge by the Sun Devils to a minimum.
As for the backcourt, it should be a fun matchup between the experience of Shamorie Ponds for St. John’s and the freshman from Arizona State, Luguentz Dort. The Pac-12 Freshman of the Year averaged 16.1 points per game to lead the team and he scored 20 or more points on eight different occasions. This includes a 33-point performance against Utah State on November 21.
Dort is not going to be much of a factor with his three-point shot (31.5 percent). With that being said, he is a player that can attack the basket and he is a major factor on the defensive end with his 1.6 steals per game.
Meanwhile, this game is the kind that Ponds came back to school to play in. Hurley’s Sun Devils had a good game plan against him last year as he had 19 points on 6-for-23 shooting. While Ponds has become more of a facilitator this year compared to last, St. John’s is going to need him to take over the game at some point, so finding his shot early is going to be essential.
Ponds and Dort may get the attention in this game, but the X-Factors for both of these teams are also in their respective backcourts.
For the Red Storm, Justin Simon’s defense is critical. He has two or more steals in four of his last five games and his ability to force turnovers allows St. John’s to have success in transition when the jump shots aren’t falling in the half court.
On the Arizona State side, Remy Martin is one of the best guards in the Pac-12 in terms of his passing. He finished second in the conference in assists per game (5.1) and he had the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league (2.7).
Another key stat to keep an eye on his free-throw percentage. In any close NCAA Tournament game, free throws can end up making or breaking your season. Well, the Sun Devils shot 67.1 percent from the charity stripe as a team. That was the third lowest percentage of any team in the Pac-12. St. John’s does get into foul trouble a lot, but if those fouls can prevent easy shots, it could go a long way in deciding the game.
St. John’s did not end the season on a good note, but the NCAA Tournament allows them to push the reset button. The coaching battle between Hurley and Chris Mullin will make it must-see TV alone. Between these two teams, it should be a fun game with a high-tempo pace.
In terms of a prediction, the Sun Devils get the check mark just because it is tough to figure out which St. John’s team is going to show up. However, this game will likely come down to the final few minutes. If that happens, then it is anybody’s game.
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