The Kentucky Wildcats are heavy favorites heading into Thursday’s showdown versus the St. John’s Red Storm, and for good reason. Freshly minted as the No. 1 ranked team in both major college basketball polls, John Calipari’s bunch is unlikely to take their foot off the gas and underestimate the opposition, even one that is as maligned as this year’s St. John’s team has been.
Of course, stranger things than an underdog team playing above their heads have happened in college hoops. And maybe, just maybe, the need to win for Steve Lavin -- who won’t be coaching in this one -- coupled with the disrespect factor they have experienced in the media for the last few days will drive the Red Storm to a shocking upset. The odds are against it, but it’s possible.
Here are three things to keep an eye on during tonight’s game:
St. John’s boasts athleticism, but is athleticism alone enough on offense?
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Much like their No. 1 ranked opponents, St. John’s has a very young and athletic core of players capable of doing special things. It’s no secret that the Red Storm avoid shooting threes like a plague, what with only about a seventh of their total shots coming from behind the arc. But they’re also not a particularly great spot-up shooting bunch either. Altogether, St. John’s shoots about 47 percent from the field, and when you factor in that a lot of their offense involves slashing and getting to the hoop (thereby ensuring more high percentage looks, in theory), you see that shooting is clearly not their forte.
It’s also worth noting that while getting inside and not settling for long looks is usually a pretty solid gameplan, it’s not ideal versus a team like Kentucky. Because of what a strong shot blocking team the Wildcats are, getting to the basket against them isn’t the same guarantee of two (plus, perhaps and-1) that it would be against other teams.
How about defense?
The problem with St. John’s defensively is that while they have some physically strong -- and as mentioned, athletic -- guys, that doesn’t make up for their overall lack of size. When you’re taking on a team that is as long and athletic as Kentucky, strength is good because at the very least you’ll get under the other guys’ skin, but it’s not as powerful of a weapon as size ultimately is. That was made especially clear in the team’s losses to the only ranked teams they played this year. It’s hard to see this Red Storm bunch be able to deter an offense putting up over 84 points per game and absolutely destroying the opposition.
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If St. John’s manages to keep it close, what is the one thing they can’t do?
This one is easy. If, however unlikely it may be, the Red Storm keep it close, they absolutely cannot miss free throws. By virtue of their style of play, St. John’s gets to the basket a lot. And yet, despite that, only three players on the squad are shooting at least 70 percent from the charity stripe. On average, the team is shooting 64.7 percent from the free throw line.
If St. John’s is able to get inside and get lengthy Kentucky defenders into foul trouble, the only way it truly benefits the underdogs is if they can convert free throws. If that doesn’t happen – game over.