Despite returning nearly everyone from last year's team, St. John's is a bit of a mystery, and it will be very interesting to see how they do this year. I've got them ranked 71st in my preseason rating, but they come in at 47th (Kenpom), 44th (Hanner), and 54th (TeamRankings) in other projections. Steve Lavin has been there a few years now, and has landed a lot of decent recruits, but the team has not come together. In fact, it's been all downhill since Lavin lost ten seniors (!) after his first year.
Last year, St. John's started three sophomores and two freshmen, and all the key reserves were underclassmen as well. They barely made the NIT despite a pretty good defense because they were a terrible offensive team. They were particularly bad at shooting. Their effective field-goal percentage was 44.5%, good for 314th in the country, and they were nearly dead last in 3-point shooting at 27.7%. To top it off, they were a bad free-throw shooting team (64%, 317th). Since their guards were all sophomores who played big minutes as freshmen, it's hard to see those numbers improving much. (But that doesn't mean they won't get hot against the Badgers!) Their one strength on offense was ball security, as they turned it over on just 16.7% of possessions, good for 17th in the country. So don't expect many turnovers in this game.
On defense, St. John's was a solid squad last year, finishing 32nd in Kenpom's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. With everyone coming back, they should be as good or better this year. The strength of their defense is on the interior, where they block a shot on 18.4% of their opponents' possessions. In that department they were led by freshman Chris Obekpa, the nation's leading shot blocker with a 15.8% block percentage.
Despite size and athleticism across the board, St. John's was a poor rebounding team on both ends last year (212th in OR% and 300th in DR%). The poor defensive rebounding is likely related to the high block percentage, as going for blocks can lead to poor rebounding positioning.
St. John's played at a relatively fast pace, with an adjusted tempo of 67.7 possessions per game, good for 93rd fastest in the country. (That would have led the Big Ten.) Presumably their fast tempo is also catalyzed by the blocks, which create transition offense. They don't create a lot of turnovers.
Normally I think a team that relies on shot-blocking to create transition offense is a good matchup for Wisconsin, because Wisconsin just does not get its shots blocked—they are perimeter-oriented and Badger players have been known to pump fake in their sleep. On offense, I hope to see the Badgers working the post with Dekker and Kaminsky drawing double-teams and kicking out to wide-open shooters. Same old story: if the guards hit their shots, the Badgers will win.
Some things to watch:
- The new rules. St. John's may be affected by the new rules on the perimeter, and Wisconsin may be affected by the new block/charge rule. This could go either way. Maybe St. John's is able to compensate for soft perimeter defense with their shot blockers waiting down low. And maybe Wisconsin comes out ahead because Bo has always taught players not to use their hands on defense. Either way, foul trouble could be a big factor.
- Three-pointers. The Badgers project to be a three-point shooting team again, with a lot of three guard lineups and two forwards who can shoot. On defense, will Bo go against type and dare St. John's to take threes? He may have to if Wisconsin can't keep St. John's' athletic guards in front of them.
- Sam Dekker. I like Sam and look forward to watching him play a lot this year.
Prediction: Wisconsin 69, St. John's 61.