Resurgent St. John’s seeks upset of No. 16 Arizona St.
LOS ANGELES — The 2017 Basketball Hall of Fame Classic triple-header tips off with a cross-country matchup between No. 16 Arizona State and St. John’s on Friday at Staples Center.
For Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley — a product of New Jersey now building a program in the West — Friday’s game offers a flavor of the past.
“In the ’80s, it was such a great time to watch Big East basketball: Pearl Washington at Syracuse, Patrick Ewing at Georgetown, Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson at St. John’s,” Hurley said. “St. John’s was always a program that I followed.”
Mullin is now the head coach at his alma mater, working to restore one of the defining traits of those great 1980s Big East Conference teams. The Red Storm (8-1) play an aggressive, stifling brand of defense that provides an intriguing countering to the explosive offensive style powering undefeated Arizona State (7-0).
St. John’s heads to Los Angeles fresh off a 68-60 win Tuesday against Grand Canyon in Phoenix, in which the Red Storm held the Antelopes to just 30.3 percent shooting from the floor and forced 21 turnovers.
The Red Storm are ranked 20th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com metrics, and third in turnover-creation percentage. Their 60-point-per-game yield is 32.7 points less than Arizona State’s cumulative scoring average.
“Certainly, they’re going to test the success we’ve had on offense this year,” Hurley said. “They’re, in my opinion, an elite defensive team. Chris Mullin has done a remarkable job to get those guys to play with the activity they have on a consistent basis.”
Shamorie Ponds and Justin Simon — two of four Red Storm players averaging double-figure scoring — are also two of the team’s premier defenders. Both are averaging more than two steals a game.
With his defensive aggression and 20.2-point-per-game average on the other end, Ponds provides a counter to Arizona State’s Tra Holder. Holder comes in averaging 22.1 points per game.
However, the Sun Devils’ balance alongside Holder has made them so prolific on offense, particularly from the perimeter. Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice come in averaging 18.7 and 15 points per game, respectively.
“Teams have to focus in on (Holder, Evans and Remy Martin) because they do so well at penetrating,” Justice said. “(The defense) has to help in or they’re going to get an easy layup, or they can dump off to one of our bigs.”
Indeed, Arizona State’s Romello White and De’Quon Lake get in on the scoring at 15.7 and 11.1 points per game, respectively. Their presence could play a factor against an undersized St. John’s lineup.
“High-octane offense,” Mullin said of the Sun Devils. “It’s going to test our defense for sure.”
Keeping pace with the Sun Devils will require the Red Storm putting together a more consistent offensive performance than its last outing. Despite Ponds’ 28 points, St. John’s endured a long scoring droughts against Grand Canyon.
The Red Storm played without guard Marcus LoVett, who Mullin said following the Grand Canyon game gives St. John’s an especially potent perimeter look.
“When we have Marcus available, we have three guards who are really, really dangerous,” Mullin said. “(LoVett, Ponds and Simon) are also different types of guards with different skill sets.”