Sizing Up the Red Storm

Tomorrow at noon, Duke will return Cameron Indoor for matchup against the St. John’s Red Storm—the last nonconference team to defeat Duke at home.

To get a better idea of what to expect from St. John’s, we got to talk to Quinn of Rumble In the Garden, a pretty sweet blog dedicated to St. John’s athletics. We answered a few questions of his as well (you can check them out here.)

Duke looks to avenge the loss to St. John's in 2011. (Photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Crazie Talk: You guys beat us pretty bad in the Garden last year, but this year’s squad is full of new blood. What’s different about this team, as compared to last year?

Rumble in the Garden: You’re right when you say that St. John’s is full of new blood. In fact, the Johnnies only returned one player from the team that defeated Duke, 93-78, at the Garden last year. What is interesting is that the one returnee (Malik Stith) plays the smallest role in the current squad’s seven-man rotation. The other six guys will be completely new faces for Duke fans. With that said, much of the way St. John’s plays on the court will look the same. Though Steve Lavin has only coached the team from the sidelines in four games, he has his fingerprints all over this young group. He has built a squad that is active defensively and utilizes forced turnovers into most of its offensive conversions in transition. They’re fast and high-flying, but perimeter shooting and rebounding really aren’t their cup of tea. The biggest difference from last year is the level of experience, naturally.

CT: What do the Red Storm do best? Where do they struggle the most?

RITG: One might look at the Red Storm’s record and say, “These guys will be a piece of cake.” Not so fast. If memory serves correctly, the Blue Devils had a lot of problems dealing with athleticism in that loss at the Garden. Much like St. John’s, Duke is a very different looking team as well. But you can expect to see a great deal of athleticism on the floor draped in red on Saturday (we here in New York always pray St. John’s don’t pull out the black uniforms). St. John’s will use that athleticism to attempt to dictate the pace of the game, one they’d love to see get as fast as possible. The Red Storm is built to play the transition game. Guys like Amir Garrett and Sir’Dominic Pointer play their best basketball in that style. And, subsequently, the Johnnies struggle most when things slow down. When they are forced to create offense in half-court sets, things get stagnant. Unless D’Angelo Harrison gets hot, they won’t shoot well from the perimeter. They also have issues boxing out defensively. Opponents get a lot of second chance opportunities.

CT: Moe Harkless leads the team in scoring and rebounding, and had a huge game against West Virginia last time out. Other than him, who should Duke be worried about?

RITG: When Lavin recruited Moe Harkless from the local Forest Hills High School to stay at home and play college ball in Queens, he hit the jackpot. Harkless is smooth offensively, and is at his best when he gets the rock at the elbow. He’s good around the basket, with both the right and left. He can be surprisingly tenacious down low as well, using his deceptive height to pull down double-digit rebounds. The problem St. John’s has this year is that Harkless is by far and away its most consistent player. Outside of he and Harrison, you can get just about anything from anyone else on any given night. On Wednesday, when they handled West Virginia without much scare, they got the first true team effort all season. And I’m not lying when I say that if they can find a way to do that consistently, they can be scary. As I mentioned earlier, Garrett and Pointer are defensive-minded players who score most of their points in transition. Phil Greene is a shifty guard currently transitioning into his role as a distributor. God’sgift Achiuwa, the Johnnies’ lone post player, shows signs of brilliance but can disappear at times.

CT: Lavin brought in a bevy of guys between 6’6-6’8 last year. How do these guys fit into your offensive system? How do you think your biggest guys, at 6’8, will match up with the Plumtrees?

RITG: Originally, Lavin’s 2011 recruiting class had six newcomers slated in that 6’6-6’8 height range. Due to some academic issues and de-commitments, that total has dwindled to just four. Achiuwa and Harkless are the team’s only players who spend most of their time in the paint, and I may even be stretching that statement with Harkless. There have been games, primarily the ones in which Achiuwa has struggled mightily, that the Red Storm’s interior game has been nonexistent. As any basketball fan would be able to tell you, that isn’t a good formula and usually leads to losses. We’ve learned it the hard way. With that said, the other guys can all get to the basket, especially against a Duke team who is lacking that interior defense presence that would alter such invasions. Rebounding has been a huge liability for St. John’s all season. I would expect the “Plumtrees” to grab a lot of the loose balls and get some chances to make up for their close misses.

CT: St. John’s has got some absolutely incredible names on the squad this year. Who’s your favorite, and why?

RITG: God’sgift Achiuwa. Sir’Dominic Pointer. Nurideen Lindsey (transferred in early December). Does it get any better than that? If only names won games. I think the easy answer would be God’sgift, for obvious reasons. But that’s the one that everyone always talks about. His siblings names are some sort of variation of God’speace, ” “Love, ” “Joy – or something like that. Personally, I love Sir’Dominic. It was a name given to him at birth, but he refused to use it throughout childhood due to embarrassment. He has since re-added the “Sir,” and I couldn’t thank him enough. I’m not even sure why, but it seems to go along with the way he plays the game and how he is off the court. It’s not always smooth and he can be a bit of a goofball. What are we going to hear next? If he ever gets knighted, will he become Sir’Sir’Dominic?

CT: Yes, you guys were the last nonconference team to beat us in Cameron all the way back in 2000. Do you think you can pull off the upset on Saturday?

RITG: I’m sure Duke fans don’t want to hear it, but we’re still living off of the Bootsy Thornton 40-point performance that sank the Blue Devils in 2000. And the Marcus Hatten walk-off free throw in 2003. Now we have the domination of 2011. Let’s not talk about all of the other nine meetings, okay? But in 2012, I can’t see such magic occurring. This St. John’s team is athletic and probably believes it can invade Cameron and shock the world. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility, especially if the Blue Devils decide to look past the Johnnies to Virginia Tech and next week’s match-up with UNC. Saturday will be the type of game where the Red Storm will hang around just enough to keep our hopes up, but expect Duke to pull away in the end. Duke 74, St. John’s 58.