Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers Preparing for ’40 Minutes of Relentless Pressure’ from St. John’s

November 16, 2022

Nebraska has taken care of business in its first two home games, but Thursday will bring a new challenge for the Huskers as they hit the road for the Gavitt Tipoff Games.

The Huskers drew a trip to St. John’s in this year’s crossover event between the Big Ten and Big East conferences. The Red Storm is off t a 3-0 start, though like Nebraska, all the team’s wins have come against teams outside of the top 290 in KenPom.

“Great opportunity heading on the road against a very impressive team early in the season to give us a good feel about where things are with us,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said on Wednesday. “We get a chance to go on the road. Normally you don’t have a lot of these opportunities at this point in the season.”

Thursday will be Nebraska’s first official road game this season, though it won’t be their first road experience. Hoiberg took his team to Boulder for a charity exhibition against Colorado on Oct. 30, giving the Huskers a chance to experience what life on the road is like, and what defeat feels like.

“Winning on the road is the hardest thing to do in college basketball and just to go through that experience, now we know the routine and what it’s going to look like,” Sam Griesel said. “I think it’s good for our guys that we had that feeling of defeat, if you will, against Colorado, and we don’t want to feel that again. Going through that experience together, I think we came out stronger and we learned a lot about ourselves. So I think we’re very prepared and that helped us a lot.”

Mike Anderson’s teams typically play very fast — the Red Storm was first in the country in adjusted tempo and average possession length last year and is fifth in both categories through three games this season. They were 33rd in the country in opposing turnover percentage last year, though they haven’t been quite as successful generating takeaways so far this season (134th). Offensively, St. John’s has gotten off to a great start against lesser competition, shooting 54.8% from the field including 41.2% from 3.

“I’ve been really impressed with St. John’s and how efficient they have been, shooting the ball at a very high clip … Very powerful, very explosive and their defense fuels their offense,” Hobart said. “We’ll be pressured as much tomorrow night as any team this year as far as getting after us. We really have to play with poise and understand there are going to be runs in this game. We’ve had a few of those that we’ve faced this year, had to play through runs. 

“I’ve been pleased with how we have handled adversity at this this point of season, but it’s going to smack us in the face at some point tomorrow and we have to handle it the right way if we have any chance of winning. Mike’s done a great job with this group. They’re playing very well together as a team, and like I said, it’s going to be a very good test for us.”

Nebraska has not yet faced consistent full-court pressure; St. John’s will test Nebraska’s ball-handling and decision-making in a different way than any team they’ve seen this far during the regular season or exhibition games. The Huskers took two of the three days following their win against Omaha off before hitting the practice court hard to prepare for the Johnnies’ pressure.

“We had three very good days of practice and obviously tried as much as we can to simulate the pressure that we’re going to see, knowing that we’re not going to be able to simulate exactly what we’re going to see tomorrow night,” Hoiberg said. “We threw six guys out there and just tried to do everything we can to get traps and presses because that’s what it feels like. I played against Mike Anderson’s teams back in the old days when we were in the Big 12 together. It’s 40 minutes of relentless pressure on the defensive end that we’re going to have to face and we’re going to have to handle.”

St. John’s features one of the better on-ball defenders in the country in 6-foot junior Posh Alexander who will make things difficult in the half court if Nebraska is able to beat the full-court pressure. Griesel said the key to executing offensively will be to avoid getting sped up, something for which his teammates have lauded Griesel since he’s arrived in Lincoln.

“Play really poised, play together, trust your teammates,” Griesel said. “I think the big thing is making the extra pass and making them defend for a long time. A lot of times with high-pressure teams and defenses, they don’t want to defend for a super long time. So getting late into that shot clock to get great shots is going to be key for us.”

Offensively, Alexander is averaging 10.7 points on 50% shooting and 5.7 assists. Joining him in the backcourt is another dynamic playmaker in Illinois transfer Andre Curbelo, who is averaging 9.7 points on 63.2% from the field and 6.0 assists.

“Curbelo, obviously we’ve seen him, know who he is,” Hoiberg said. “But he really thrives in the system that Mike runs. Defensively, he’s got great hands, great instincts, and then he’s one of the best passers, certainly, that I’ve played against at this level.”

The Alexander and Curbelo backcourt will exert a lot of pressure on Nebraska’s perimeter defenders off the bounce with their quickness, though both struggle mightily from the 3-point line (1-of-8 combined so far this season).

St. Johns’ leading scorer is another transfer, former DePaul wing David Jones. The 6-foot-6, 195-pound junior is averaging 18.7 points, 8.0 rebonds and 3.3 assists while shooting 40% from 3 (after shooting 27.3% in his two seasons at DePaul).

“Jones flat out scores the ball and he does it in a variety of ways,” Hoiberg said. “He’s shooting 49% overall, he has great length, he gets t the rim, he’s got 10 offensive rebounds. He’s just a really versatile three-level scorer. They’ll post him against matchups and he can really shoot the 3-ball.” 

Former Rutgers guard Montez Mathis (11.3 points per game) and big man Joel Soriano (11.3 points and 8.7 rebounds) are both scoring in double figures in their second season with the Red Storm. Freshman AJ Storr, a top-150 recruit, is providing an offensive spark off the bench with 8.7 points in just 12.3 minutes per game.

Tipoff from Carnesecca Arena in Queens, New York, is set for 5:30 p.m. CT Thursday on FS1 with Tim Brando and Donny Marshall on the call.

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