2014 NIT Tournament Preview: Robert Morris vs. St. John's - NEC vs. Big East

Paul Vladuchick

Last year the Robert Morris Colonials (21-13, 14-2) defeated the Kentucky Wildcats in the 1 vs. 8 matchup in the NIT, albeit, at home. Can they repeat that success on the road against a defensive-minded St. John's Red Storm (20-12, 10-8) tomorrow night?

In a lot of ways, this is exactly the kind of team that the Robert Morris Colonials aren't well-equipped to play.  The two games during conference play in which they had to adjust offensively were against Wagner.  Senior forward Naofall Folahan deterred every attempt around the basket when he was in the game.  Furthermore, he constantly forced the frontcourt players of RMU to try and pump-fake multiple times, and generally, they just didn't end up attempting those shots.

Robert Morris now faces the number-one ranked defense - Wagner is 5th - in terms of shot-blocking percentage in St. John's, as they reject 19.9 percent of their opposition's attempts.  The catalyst behind that is Red Storm sophomore center Chris Obekpa.  His block percentage of 15.3 percent ranks him 3rd in D-I.  For a point of reference, Folahan ranks 5th at 14.2 percent, but that's against lesser competition.

If you follow the Colonials and/or watched the NEC at all this season, it was apparent that the Seahawks were one of the best teams in the conference, but had trouble scoring - 98.2 offensive rating.  St. John's is a more athletic version of Wagner, except their also a good offensive team, scoring 107.6 points per 100 possessions.

Couple that with the fact that the Red Storm are 21st in terms of defensive rating (94.5) - Wagner is 67th (99.4) - and you start to see why this will be an uphill battle for RMU.

Ironically, St. John's played Wagner at home back in mid-November; they won 73 - 57.  The Red Storm limited the Seahawks to 22-62 (35.5 percent) from the floor and forced 15 turnovers.  Again, Wagner struggled to put the ball in the basket all season, but they were bolstered by 14 point from junior guard Jay Harris in that game.

Harris didn't play against Robert Morris at the Sewall Center, and then was suspended for the remainder of the season before the teams met at the end of conference play.

Silver Lining (Robert Morris):

Games aren't played on paper, but on the hardwood.  No team knows that better than the Colonials, as they defeated the Kentucky Wildcats in the 1 vs. 8 matchup last year in the NIT.  But, that game took place in the confines of the 'Chuck' in Moon Twp., PA.

The good news for RMU is that they rely on a perimeter-oriented approach on the offensive end, and pick their spots when they choose to go to the basket - mostly transition or defensive breakdowns.  They are 36th in the nation for three-point percentage at 38.3 percent, and mid-majors usually have a puncher's chance if they can connect from beyond the arc.  Robert Morris takes 33.6 percent of their attempts from three-point distance.

With that said, their execution on offense is going to have to be really, really good.  They'll need the screen setting of sophomore forwards Stephan Hawkins and Aaron Tate is going to be vital against St. John's.

How well this team adjusts to the speed of the Red Storm, particularly in their switches and rotations will be an early indicator as to whether or not the Colonials will be in the game at the end.

Player to Watch (Robert Morris):

As usual, it's going to be senior guard, and NEC Player of the Year, Karvel Anderson.  Anderson ranks in the top-25 in eFG% (62.4 percent, 23rd) and TS% (64.9 percent, 23rd).  He also is ranked 27th in offensive rating at 128.1, but is 2nd for players who use at least 24 percent of their team's offensive possessions, but less than 28 percent.

If you've watched Anderson this year, then you know he can do it all offensively.  He finishes at 65.8 percent around the rim, is an insane 51.7 percent on his two-point jumpers, and 45.3 percent from beyond the arc.

The key is going to be how well St. John's pays attention to the details.  Over the course of conference play, particularly in the NEC Tournament, teams adjusted to Anderson.  I am not sure how prepared the Red Storm will be for RMU on a one-day notice in which the emphasis will be to not allow him an inch, not necessarily his tendencies.

X-Factor (Robert Morris):

In order to give Anderson room to operate, Hawkins and junior guard/forward Lucky Jones are going to have to pull Obekpa and sophomore forward JaKarr Sampson away from the basket with their ability to connect from 15-18 feet.  If junior guard David Appolon is defended by Sampson, he's going to have to utilize his quickness advantage.

If Jones is the player he was against CCSU midway through the season or in the first two NEC Tournament games, then Robert Morris is going to have a chance.  Of course, he's going to have to be great on the defensive side of the ball, but it's his offense that I think will be needed the most against the St. John's defense.  Lucky looks the part of a player who could play at the next level; he'll have a great chance to prove that on Tuesday.

Prediction:

It's hard to pick against a home team who resembles a better version of one of the teams that gave the Colonials the most problems.  I didn't even talk about junior guard D'Angelo Harrison, who was named First-Team All-Big East, and leads the team in scoring at 17.7 points per game.

The Red Storm have only lost three times since February, and those were all to NCAA Tournament teams (Villanova, Xavier, and Providence).  They also played Syracuse in mid-December, so they'll have some idea of how to play against the 2-3 zone.

I am not counting this RMU team out, but I think we'll know how well they'll fare in the game's opening minutes.  Last year, Robert Morris held Kentucky scoreless going into the first media timeout, and led 12 - 2 at the 14:26 mark.  That fast start was vital for them, as it got the sell-out crowd into it, and injected confidence into every player.

This year, they needed 14 minutes and 38 seconds to score 10 points against the Wildcats, and 8 minutes and 41 seconds to accomplish that in Stillwater, Oklahoma against the Cowboys.

The Colonials will need to have another start like they didn't against UK in order to win.  Only this time they’ll need to do it on the road in a hostile environment.

KenPom has St. John’s winning 75 – 61, and only a 9 percent chance of RMU pulling the upset.

Details

No. 8 Robert Morris vs. No. 1 St. John's

Where: Carnesecca Arena, Queens
When: 7 p.m., Tuesday
Television: ESPNU
Tickets: St. John's

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