Kamar Baldwin brings the ball down the court during a game this season. Butler plays at St. John’s on New Year’s Eve to kick off conference play. Chandler Hart / Collegian file photo.
JOSH MULLENIX | SPORTS EDITOR | firstname.lastname@example.org
After 12 wins in 13 games including seven Power 5 opponents, now comes the hard part for Butler men’s basketball: 18 games against nine teams currently in the top 81 at KenPom. It’s time for Big East play. The last time Butler started conference play with St. John’s on the road was during the 2016-17 season, and they lost that game 76-73. Here’s everything you need to know as the Bulldogs begin their conference schedule on the road at St. John’s.
Who: No. 11 Butler (12-1, 0-0 Big East) vs. St. John’s (11-2, 0-0 Big East)
When: Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Carnesecca Arena, Queens, New York
How to watch/listen: FS1, 93.5FM/107.5FM/1070AM
1. St. John’s quietly put together a solid nonconference performance.
There weren’t many Big East teams picked to finish behind Butler in the Big East, but St. John’s was one of them. So far this season, they don’t look like a team destined for the bottom of the cellar in the Big East. They boast two strong wins, the first coming against West Virginia, who just beat Ohio State on a neutral court and is now No. 16 in this week’s AP Poll. The second came at the Chase Center in San Francisco against Arizona. The Wildcats have dropped to 25th in the country but began the season inside the top 15. The Red Storm has experience not only playing top 25 teams but beating them.
Of course, they aren’t perfect, having lost twice, once on a neutral site and once at home to teams outside of the top 80 at KenPom. The metrics don’t love St. John’s either. KenPom has them sitting at 81st as of Dec. 30 and they are 110th in the country in offensive efficiency. With that being said, they’ve beaten the majority of the teams they were supposed to beat and have a couple wins no one was expecting them to have.
2. Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa are the guys for St. John’s, and they present a unique challenge.
With the departure of Shamorie Ponds, the keys to the Red Storm fell into the hands of Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa. The perimeter duo are gifted scorers as the pair averages 30.5 points per game for St. John’s and both players average 15 points. Figueroa has scored 14 points or more on nine different occasions this season and Heron scored 30 points against Central Connecticut State earlier this season. Both shoot the ball well and can get to the rim and they are also big guards. Figueroa stands at 6 feet, 6 inches and Heron is an inch shorter.
Butler has faced talented guards that Kamar Baldwin and Aaron Thompson have stopped and they’ve passed tests against Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Trevion Williams. Heron and Figueroa will put pressure on Butler’s other perimeter players to guard at a high level. Butler’s team defense has been phenomenal this season, but the two present a challenge unlike the ones Butler has seen this season.
With that being said, Heron has missed the last two games after suffering an ankle injury on Dec. 10 against Brown. St. John’s head coach Mike Anderson has described his situation as a game day decision. Anderson said Heron is progressing and practicing but on a limited basis. If he missed the Big East opener, Figueroa will see even more usage which he’s done well with, scoring 21 points in St. John’s win over Arizona.
3. Taking care of the basketball will be key.
St. John’s is going to try to force Butler into committing a lot of turnovers and speed them up. And they’re good at it. The Red Storm is forcing 17.9 turnovers per game and, more importantly, is getting nearly 21 points per contest off of those turnovers. 18th in the country in tempo according to KenPom, St. John’s is going to try to run and the best way for them to do that is to force Butler into making mistakes.
It will be a battle of a fast-paced team that likes to force turnovers versus a Butler team that is one of the 20 slowest teams in college basketball that is top 10 in the country in turnovers committed per game. The team that is able to establish the pace early and often will have a great chance to win this game. For Butler especially, slowing the game down will mean taking the home crowd out of the game just a little bit more which can be very helpful on the road.