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Pitt Basketball: St. John's Q&A With Rumble In The Garden

Most of you know Pico from his old blog, The East Coast Bias. Recently, he joined the SB Nation fold and filled a huge void in the Big East by representing St. John's with his new home - Rumble In The Garden. If you've never been over there, do yourself a favor and stop by. And there's no better time with Pitt's game against the Johnnies on Saturday.

Pico and I recently put together a brief Q&A and answered some questions for Saturday's big game. Here are his answers to my questions and be sure to head over to his site to view my answers to his questions.

1. I was expecting some good things out of St. John's, and then the team got off to a pretty mediocre start. A loss to St. Mary's on the road isn't so bad, but then there were the defeats at the hands of St. Bonaventure and Fordham. The team also had go to OT with Ball State before pulling out a win. After a 5-3 start and consecutive losses against A-10 teams, where were you thinking this team would end up? Did you expect them to be able to make the turnaround they did?

In the beginning of the season, the Red Storm were a team trying to learn some very different philosophies. 

a) They were learning how to play an effective zone. If you had seen any of the Red Storm's dalliances with any zone under the previous staff, you knew they had a long way to go.  The zones played in the past were generally passive and ineffective (though a 1-3-1 against Georgetown 2 years ago got them two wins against the Hoyas).

b) The Red Storm were learning to play under control.  Previously, energy and activity were placed at a premium over crisp execution and the basics (like shot fakes, or looking where a player is passing the ball). While that seems a little harsh, rebounding was probably the best thing about the last 3 Red Storm squads.

So I expected them to get better as they got used to the coaching and the new concepts. This much better?  I would be lying if I said I expected this.  After the A-10 losses, I thought they would be around where I predicted at the beginning of the season 8-10 or 9-9 in conference. I thought they badly needed those two games and St. Mary's/ Northwestern to have a real shot at the NCAAs as a last 4 in. I didn't think the team was broken, per se; but the way they allowed opponents to shoot was frightening. Which ties into your next question...

2. After that rough patch, what changes did you see in the team after that start that allowed them to win five in a row, including their first three Big East games against West Virginia, Providence, and Georgetown?

They defended the three-point line more effectively.  That's a lot of it; the staff showed some flexibility and played a little man-to-man against Northwestern, implemented a more aggressive trapping system, and got the defensive energy level up. The team also made a concerted effort to take more effective shots (and eschew the three-pointer), to get inside the lane and draw fouls... and the free throw shooting (and who was shooting the FTs) improved. 
3. Despite a 3-6 string of games in-conference, at 16-9, I'd say the Johnnies will probably make the tournament. They still have games left against DePaul, South Florida, and Seton Hall, and one more win will assure them of a .500 conference record. Assuming you're of the belief they'll make the tournament, where would you seed them right now if the season ended today.

It's funny hearing about the 3-6 string in conference; St. John's fans think the team did okay there (but needed the Cincy win). We didn't have high expectations and the opponents the team faced were pretty rough - all ranked, I believe, at the time.

But now? All St. John's has to do is not soil their pants against South Florida and DePaul and they should be good. If they can beat Seton Hall, I'd think a lot more of this team and seed them higher; as of now, I'd probably give them an 8/9 seed.

It's hard to say, though. The team is really coming on and beating some good teams, but they have so many flaws. And they lost to UCLA. I think that they will be seeded higher than 9, however.

4. Dwight Hardy has really taken his game to another level with the benefit of more minutes, but D.J. Kennedy, who I'm sure had much higher hopes has seen a decrease in production. Talk a little bit about both and what kind of years they're having.

Dwight Hardy is an interesting case. In January, he was looking a little loss, inefficient, like being the lead ballhandler was a bit much for him.  And his numbers then highlighted that in his 2-year career at St. John's, he'd never had a long sustained stretch of being the impact scorer he's shown flashes of.

So of course, when I was personally writing him off (because I know SO MUCH, right?) he opened the can of HARDY on opponents. He's been crazy - so crafty, so aware, so adept at taking a little opening and finding a scoring opportunity. Mind you, he's not some highly-athletic scoring maven, he's probably not going to be drafted. But he is crafty.  It's not just the minutes; in the month of February and in the Duke game, he has had a flaming orange ball in his hands, NBA Jam style.  The Rutgers game wasn't great, and Cincy sent double teams to him and shut him off... but other than that? Hardy's been the man of late.

D.J. Kennedy has been a bit disappointing this season. Coach Lavin mentioned him in this morning's Big east conference call, saying that the team is better when Kennedy is aggressive. Is that a tweak before the game against his hometown Panthers?

I think so.  Thing is, Kennedy has had to play much more differently than almost anyone else (except Paris Horne). Kennedy was the facilitator, the offensive slasher in the old offense. Now? No one can be sure what his role is supposed to be.  He SHOULD be the jack of all trades player, the guy who hits open shots, who can stop a run by the opposing team with a driving layup, a guy who can defend, a guy who can lead the break, a guy who can pick off an errant pass.  He has been decent on defense, and has been better at picking off passes. But he seems like he doesn't know how to pick his spots on offense.

That might be just fine - he's still making plays, and the team is winning.  I wish he had a few more offensive finishes/ fouls drawn per game, but this is a solid role for him. And as long as he keeps his head in the game and keeps playing hard, he's going to have a crucial game for the team this season. It might even be Saturday afternoon!
5. Steve Lavin's got a monster recruiting class coming next year. When he was hired, what were your thoughts on the west-coast hire?

Coasts don't really matter to recruiting/ coaching... well, not exactly. I think that with a NY-recruiter as an assistant, a good recruiter (aka a good salesman) can get kids to come. Look at Oliver Purnell - no connection to Chicago, bringing in some decent area players (and just missing on Mike Shaw). And any school has to have one assistant whose strength is recruiting and is intimately involved with the target area. Tony Chiles fills that role well, better than many others - he's not polarizing, he's not a huge name, but he's identified and brought in kids to Drexel who have been very effective. And he's a smart guy, gregarious - he seems like he would sell the way Lavin wants to sell, if that makes sense.

Too much had been made of a coach's roots. Especially out of New York.  The NY-area coaching tree has really diminished in the last 20 or 30 years.  Who are the notable coaches with even tri-state roots these days? Pitino? Al Skinner? Pete Gillen? Tom Pecora? Maybe Tim Welsh? A coach has to have something to sell and an ability to teach winning ball. But schools hired guys like Norm Roberts, Fred Hill, or Barry Rohrssen because they were perceived as delivering on a pipeline... that dried up.

I loved the fact that the school fell into a guy from the wrong coast with a desire to prove he could do the job. With the possible exception of Billy Donovan - who the Johnnies had no chance at - Lavin was the best prospective candidate in the bunch, pilloried because of inconsistency (which I think he will still have) and national badmouthing.
6. As a Pitt fan, I've got major concerns about this game. Since those early defeats, St. John's hasn't really had any bad losses the rest of the year. They've also put some pretty good beatdowns on top ten teams at home, beating Duke by 15 and UConn by 17. Pitt just doesn't get blown out, so I don't expect that kind of a loss, but St. John's is obviously very capable of winning on Saturday. What do you think about this weekend's game and who are you picking to come out on top?

I am hopeful, I love the squad, but I think Pitt stomps on the Red Storm's hope for more incredible wins.

I think.

I would never have told you that the Red Storm would have beaten on Duke like that (U Conn? Maybe. They've been a little off) or won those road games. The betting sites and predictive stats would have laughed at the probabilities of St. John's winning those games.  These guys are playing hard.

Actually? Let me rethink that. Pitt has size, so if the game ends up controlled by Pitt - in the half court, with big-man touches and efficient shooting - Pitt has it solidly. But if the Panthers start turning over the ball (and they're middle of the league in turnover percentage), or are made to miss shots... it could happen.