Tomorrow at 4 pm on ESPNU, the Cincinnati Bearcats renew their series with the St John's Red Storm. It seems like UC has played St John's a lot over the last couple years since they have been mirror opponents in the Big East. This year they only play once. Thank the good lord.
This could also be the last time Cincinnati and St John's play. That's kind of sad because Cincinnati and St John's have played a lot of close games with each other the past few years. They haven't been basketball classics by any stretch, but most of them have come down to the wire. There was the game Cincinnati blew during the final minute that caused me to write a list of painful UC losses. There was the game that Yancy Gates won. There was the game last year where St John's won with a shot at the buzzer. Hopefully tomorrow's meeting will be more like the second meeting last year, when Cincinnati put the boots to St John's.
For the occasion, my good friend Norman aka Pico from Rumble in the Garden and I sat down to talk about the game. Norman is on twitter @ECoastBias. I answered questions about Cincinnati on his site earlier today. You can check that out right here.
Today we talk about St John's elite shot blocking, Chris Obekpa, D'Angelo Harrison, JaKarr Sampson, Steve Lavin's rotation, the future Big East and lots of other fun stuff. Questions are in bold.
D'Angelo Harrison is the leading scorer in the Big East after his monster game against Villanova. He was a good scorer last season, what's made him a great scorer this season?
It's still early – Harrison's 2-point shooting percentage really slid down a muddy valley in Big East play last year. But so far, D'Angelo has simply been better at shooting and scoring in the midrange. He's also the main offensive threat, so he sees that ball as often as he can.
It helps that he is now wearing contact lenses as of a game or two ago.
St John's has one of the best freshmen in the league with JaKarr Sampson. He's averaging 13.7 and 7. He's also good at blocking shots. What has helped him stand apart from the other freshmen in the league?
He's definitely going pro, right?
Not after last night's performance!
Seriously, though, Sampson has the goods to go pro, we think. He stands apart because of two things – copious amounts of playing time and the ability to work on a weakness until it has become a possible strength.
Coming in to the season, the novella on Sampson was that he was an athlete in search of skill and a shot. Obviously he has the shot. He works the "athlete" part in with his rebounding and shot blocking. Now he needs to use the athleticism to score more. If anything keeps him from making the jump, it'll be that he can expand his range and that he needs to score in different ways. Villanova shut down his deep-two jumper game, and he was held to 2 points.
The Red Storm lead the nation in blocks, blocks per game and block percentage. A large part of that is because of Chris Obekpa, who has 68 blocks, 5.2 a game and blocks 20.2% of the shots when he's on the floor. I have a couple questions about this.
Is Obekpa the best defender you've seen while watching and writing about St John's?
No. Ron Artest, easily, for best all-around defender. In terms of a player who did one thing, maybe Cedric Jackson, who later transferred to Cleveland State.
Right now, Obekpa is good on the stat sheet and making an impact, but he can't end possessions with a rebound. His positional defense isn't awful but I wouldn't expect him to shut down Jack Cooley.
Where would you rate the Obekpa/Sampson line defensively?
They're pretty good at altering shots, and St John's interior defense is much better than it was with God'sGift Achiuwa in the middle. Still, with two forwards dedicated top blocking shots, players are getting second opportunities at the rim
Have you come up with a good shot blocking catchphrase?
"Oblockpa" has caught on. It was claimed by on of the newspaper writers but I thought I had seen it previous to his use.
Steve Lavin seems to ride 3 or 4 guys with heavy minutes and this season is no exception. Is there a toll being taken when we get to the grind of the season? Or does it not matter?
So far, it has been that Lavin only has four or so guys he feels he can ride or die with, guys that he can watch make mistakes but will also reward him with dynamic play. This year it is a top three, and the players around Phil Greene/ D'Angelo Harrison/ Jakarr Sampson change slightly – Obekpa is a constant. Others are being worked in; there is fluidity. I think Lavin has guys in reserve that are role players, but that he hopes show enough to warrant a regular role on the floor.
I don't think it'll take a heavy toll. Not like last year's six man squad.
What does this St John's team have to do to beat Cincinnati?
Assault their pressure efficiently and explosively. They will need a really hot run of play and take advantage of the Bearcats' shooting lulls. And rebound; St John's will have to keep the Cincy forwards off of the offensive glass. Easy to say, hard to mark those long, flying forwards.
How do you feel about St John's being part of the group breaking away from the Big East?
You know the joy of seeing jolly folks dance without irony? That's not quite how I feel but I like the image.
I still think the move comes with risk – and I wrote extensively about it on the Rumble (http://www.rumbleinthegarden.com/realignment-and-st-johns-future) – but as schools choose affiliations, the precariousness of being in a league just waiting to be poached is clear. It's tough to be in a league where football schools just bide their time before being called up by bigger boys.
We seem to talk about the OC in every Q&A. Do you think we are getting to the point that people have no idea what we are talking about because that show has been off the air for so long? Or does Ryan Atwood live in our hearts forever?
I think people know. It's on the soap network, right? Everyone watches the soap network. What are Adam Brody and Ben McKenzie doing now, anyway?
Thanks to Norman for taking the time to answer my questions. Once again, I implore you to follow him on twitter and check out the site. Ben McKenzie is on Southland by the way. I've been told it's a quality show. Adam Brody was in Scream 4. His career is going places.
I may or may not get another St John's preview up, so consider this the main one. I'll throw out a score.
Cincinnati 58 St John's 50