by Gregory Habeeb
Amidst all of the changes in college basketball over the last few seasons, Villanova and St. John’s meeting in the Big East play has remained a constant.
The rivalry between these two storied programs will resume on Saturday, when the Wildcats will meet the Red Storm at the Wells Fargo Center.
It will mark the 108th matchup between the two longtime adversaries in a series that dates back to the Coolidge administration. St. John’s currently holds a 60-48 advantage in the all-time series against ’Nova. The Wildcats have won 10 of the last 11 matchups however, including a 74-67 victory over the Red Storm in January at Madison Square Garden.
St. John’s led at halftime in that game, though ’Nova was able to use a 10-1 run just past the midpoint of the second half to take a 65-57 lead which they would not relinquish.
Part of the reason for the Wildcats’ struggles early in that game was an excellent defensive effort by the Red Storm.
Villanova was held in check from behind the arc, hitting only three of their first 14 3-point shots before sinking two towards the end of the game to bring up their shooting percentage behind the arc to 31.3 percent, well below their season average.
The Wildcats were able to survive offensively by working the ball inside and getting to the foul line. ’Nova took 16 more free throws than St. John’s and made 12 more, crucial points in a game decided by a slim seven-point margin where scoring was at a premium.
Following their Feb. 1 win over Temple, Head Coach Jay Wright lamented the Wildcats’ struggles on defense in conference play, telling ESPN.com, “We definitely have to get better, but we can definitely score. I just don’t want us to rely on that. Good teams have to be able to find ways to win on the nights when you’re not making shots.”
While the Wildcats have generally sured up that end of the floor. especialy during a three-game stretch when they held Xavier, Seton Hall and DePaul to 58, 53 and 62 points, respectively, arguably their best stretch of team defense came against the very St. John’s team they will face this weekend.
During their 10-1 second half surge in this season’s first meeting, Villanova held the Red Storm scoreless for 4:40, throttling the Johnnies’ attack with a blitzing and physical half court man to man shell. It was one of the most, if not the most memorable five minute stretch the Wildcats have put together defensively to this season.
St. John’s will once again rely heavily on junior guard D’Angelo Harrison to create offense. Harrison leads the team in field goal attempts and is the only player on the Red Storm roster to be averaging more than 12.5 points per game as of Feb. 16 (The Wildcats, as a point of reference, have three players averaging over 12.5 PPG so far this season).
Harrison was the star player for St. John’s in the first matchup between these two squads. The Texas native struggled from the field, going 3-14 from the floor; however he made 13 of 14 free throws and finished the game with a game high 22 points and added in four rebounds, a steal and a block.
The Wildcats, on the other hand, will look to be more efficient in their attack this time around, as they shot about 10 percent less than their season average in the first meeting between these two teams.
Redshirt junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston had one of his best all-around performances of the season in that matchup, posting a double-double with 15 points, 10 boards and a pair of steals.
’Nova will likely continue to depend on Pinkston and sophomore forward Daniel Ochefu for offense down low, especially considering Ochefu has continued to grow more and more comfortable on that end of the floor as the season has progressed.
One Wildcat who will likely be a much bigger factor on Saturday is senior guard James Bell. He mustered only four points in the first game against the Red Storm, his second lowest output this year.
Bell has been Villanova’s MVP this season, leading all Wildcats in scoring and providing nearly six rebounds per game despite being a 6-6 perimeter player. The Wildcats are 27-5 over the last two seasons when the Florida native scores in double figures.
’Nova will also hope to see a repeat performance from freshman guard Josh Hart, who has provided energy, hustle and shooting off the bench for the Wildcats in his rookie campaign and posted 14 points and five rebounds against St. John’s in January. Hart also got to the line 13 times over the course of the action.
The Wildcats-Red Storm matchup will tip off at 1:30 p.m. and will be televised on Fox Sports 1.