Friday, October 22, 2021

St. John’s making mark with suffocating defense

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They come after you from the layup line. They come after you before that: as you’re walking off the bus, as you’re doing your pregame stretches. They come after you after makes, after misses, sometimes just for the sheer pleasure of coming after you, getting after you, trapping you and confusing you.

We forget what this kind of basketball can look like sometimes, a frantic, frenetic fury that is contagious. When St. John’s is percolating, you don’t make a turnover here, a turnover there; you make them in bunches. You make them in half-court, in full-court.

Even a terrific team — and most nights, the Villanova Wildcats are a terrific team, one of the best in America — can look like they’re the beneficiaries of a buy game.

They look that helpless. They look that sapped of energy. They look like a team trying to play 5-on-7.

“We came out swinging,” St. John’s coach Mike Anderson said when this marvelous 70-57 schooling of the third-ranked Wildcats was done. “Our defense was great. I can’t say enough about the leadership of this team. Villanova is a great offensive team and we tried to apply the pressure.”

Anderson, of course, learned this style of ball from the very best, from Nolan Richardson, for whom he played at Tulsa, for whom he served as an assistant coach at Arkansas. Those Razorbacks invented and perfected “40 Minutes of Hell” and it was a joy to behold because they were ready to guard you right from your morning wake-up call.

“You don’t want to play defense for me,” Richardson was fond of saying back in the day, “then you’re better off playing for a different coach.”

Posh Alexander knocks the ball away from Collin Gillespie during St.These Johnnies are rich with kids with talent, but kids whose desire and love of the game defines them more than their raw skills. These kids — Posh Alexander and Julian Champagnie, Vince Cole and Rasheem Dunn and the rest — have bought into what Anderson is selling. They’ve won five in a row. They’re 12-7. They’re getting better by the game — better by the hour, really.

Do you want to play them?

You want to try and get the ball across halfcourt without cramping up and passing out?

“It’s just fun, honestly,” said Champagnie, who finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds, talking about the relentless style the Johnnies prefer. “Especially with no fans in the gym it helps us to create our own energy.”

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Wednesday night at Alumni Hall, the Johnnies shot the ball better than they have all year, and that allowed them to stay with the Wildcats after Nova had burst to a quick lead, allowed them to catch up, allowed them to sneak to a 30-27 lead at halftime. The offense was nice.

It was the defense that ruined Villanova: 94-foot, trapping, helping, ball-hogging, asphyxiating defense.

There were moments when the Cats seemed totally spooked by invisible defenders — remember what Sam Darnold said that time about the Patriots, that he saw ghosts? Villanova saw ghosts all night at Carnesecca Arena.

Most of the game, Villanova shot under 30 percent from the floor. The Wildcats’ most accomplished offensive player, Collin Gillespie, shot 2-for-12 from the field, 0-for-8 from 3. The Wildcats committed 17 turnovers (although it sure felt like twice that many). They didn’t play their A game, or anything near to it, and when an upset of this magnitude happens part of the prerequisite is that the better team plays more poorly than usual.

But this was different. This was St. John’s forcing Villanova to look this way, imposing its will, imposing its pace. It was a wonderful time to do that, sure; Villanova spent a long time in a COVID-19 shutdown, and practice time has been limited. The Wildcats have only played nine players all year; the Red Storm generally go 10 deep before the second TV timeout. They come after you in shifts, in waves, opening tip to final buzzer.

It isn’t always pretty.

Wednesday night, it was beautiful. Wednesday night it was the Johnnies running the Wildcats clear out of the gym, clear onto Utopia Parkway, all the way back to the Turnpike and the Main Line and, no doubt, a deep, dreamless sleep interrupted only by the occasional nightmare of another deflection, another trap, another turnover, another miscue.


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