By Vin Parise
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St. John’s takes the stage today at the Garden against the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers who beat Seton Hall yesterday in the 1st round , 76-70, in overtime. It seemed as though the Pirates had their number but it wound up being a gutsy win in the end by Mike Rice’s team. Seton Hall was up by eight points with five minutes to go but Rutgers kept fighting. And even when Seton Hall’s Jeremy Hazell brought down the house with a game tying three pointer to force overtime – Jonathan Mitchell led the Jersey boys who were too much in the end for Kevin Willard’s club.
Now get ready for today folks. When Steve Lavin’s St. John’s team takes the court at MSG this afternoon it’s going to be electric. Even in the late 90’s when the Johnnies were good, the Garden’s buzz was nothing like it has been this season. As Rutgers head coach Mike Rice just told Joe and Evan on air – “Yes it will be like a Big East road game, but ya gotta love when St. John’s is good for the metropolitan area.”
It’s going to be very important for Rutgers to come out with early defensive intensity and poise on offense. You have to expect that St. John’s is going to make runs behind the energy of the crowd. But it’s how you respond after the timeouts that separates the average teams from the good teams in the Big East tournament.
PHOTOS: Big East Tournament – Day 1
From St. John’s perspective, you have to stick with what has gotten you here and I think that Steve Lavin will. That’s one thing he’s been consistent with – not flip flopping with his offensive or defensive philosophies. For example, even though you wouldn’t want to zone Jeremy Hazell, St. John’s did last week and got burned at Seton Hall with the loss. But you gotta stick to your guns and their matchup zone has treated them well this year. And it should treat them well today as Rutgers does not shoot the basketball well.
In other Big East action yesterday:
* After keeping it interesting for awhile, UConn crushed DePaul down the stretch and won 97-71 in the first game of the day. Kemba Walker led the Huskies with 26 points but it was in the paint where Jim Calhoun’s team dominated. UConn shot 60% from the field and only made two 3 pointers out of the 97 points they scored. UConn moves on today to play Georgetown in a game either team can win. Don’t sleep on these Huskies and the Hoyas are much different since Chris Wright’s injury.
* Marquette also handled the Providence Friars easily as the Golden Eagles won, 87-66. Marquette shot 57% from the field in the 1st half and never looked back. The Friars made runs to make it interesting but Providence just does not defend. It’s disappointing because the Friars have enough offense. They finished second in the Big East in scoring, Marshon Brooks broke nearly every Big East scoring record this year and Vincent Council is one of the better point guards in the league. But Providence finished 15th in the league in defense and it showed yesterday. As ex-Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy recently said, “Defense is mental and not physical. If you can score 30 points in a game, you defend hard for less than 40 minutes of play.” Marquette moves on to play West Virginia in a game that will be as physical as an NFL football game.
* And the shocker of the day was South Florida’s win vs Villanova. The Bulls came back from 16 points down for the win which is the biggest deficit overcome in Big East tournament history. It’s on record that I have never been completely sold on this Nova team this season and yesterday showed why. In past years when Jay Wright’s team has played “small ball” with guards; they always still had a post player who was not afraid to be tough and throw you around. I didn’t see that toughness out of Nova this year. And guards like Scottie Reynolds of the past penetrated and scored the ball in the paint just as much as on the perimeter. This year’s Villanova team takes way too many perimeter shots for too long of stretches. That being said, South Florida should struggle in the next round vs a very good and very underrated Cincinnati team.
– Vin Parise