Last Updated: 2019-03-18
The bubble discussion gets beaten to death year in and year out, but there is a lot to say about how Arizona State and St. John’s managed to be among the last four teams in the field for the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Those two teams will play for the right to face #6 Buffalo in this 11 vs. 11 play-in game in Dayton, Ohio on Wednesday night. The Sun Devils are a slight one-point favorite with a total of 152.5 against the Red Storm.
Everybody agreed that it was a weak bubble. Mid-majors usually get held down by the Selection Committee because a mediocre Power Six Conference team is somehow viewed as a more attractive proposition. That’s how we end up with St. John’s and Arizona State here. At least Belmont drew one of the other play-in #11 seeds and has the chance to make some noise moving forward.
In any event, there are some serious individual players worth watching in this game and, to be totally honest, both of these teams underachieved and shouldn’t have been on the bubble. Shamorie Ponds is the most recognizable name, but the Johnnies have Big East Defensive Player of the Year Justin Simon and a strong supporting cast with guys like Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa.
Arizona State is young, but freshman Luguentz Dort and sophomore Remy Martin are two players with bright futures. Seniors Zylan Cheatham and De’Quon Lake are physical bigs that can wreak some havoc on the glass and down on the blocks. This is actually a game that features a lot of talent, even though we can debate the resumes of both teams relative to the rest of the bubble.
Bobby Hurley’s team got a boost that Oregon won the Pac-12 Conference Tournament. The Sun Devils went into the Pac-12 Tournament as a #2 seed and lost to Oregon in overtime on Friday. Dana Altman’s team marched through four games in four days and beat Washington by 20, which likely made the loss look a bit better for Arizona State.
Stylistically, this is a fun matchup. Arizona State bangs down low and likes to use its physicality. This isn’t a great jump shooting team, but the Sun Devils get to the line a ton and rank in the top 50 in offensive rebounding. They also defend the interior well, as opponents only managed a 47.2 percent success rate on two-point shots through the regular season and conference tournament. The fact that Arizona State had 11 Quadrant 1 & 2 wins is probably why they are here, so this is a team that, while inconsistent, is capable of stepping up against quality competition.
Possessions will be like gold in this game. Arizona State is a little less experienced in the ballhandling department. St. John’s comes into this one sixth in the country in TO% on offense and 44th in the country in TO% on defense. They take care of the basketball and get some extra possessions from forcing turnovers.
Those are the keys to this game. Arizona State’s rebounding edge is quite dramatic over St. John’s, but the Johnnies take better care of the basketball and force more turnovers. The Red Storm does have more consistent scoring threats. Shamorie Ponds is the best player not named Markus Howard in the Big East, but don’t sleep on LJ Figueroa, who had 14.3 points per game during the year. He is coming off of his worst game of the season in the blowout loss to Marquette in the conference tournament, so he’ll be plenty invested here. Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron has battled some health concerns late in the year, but he had 14.9 points per game when healthy.
This will be an interesting line to follow. People have downplayed the Pac-12 all year and for good reason. Similarly, the Big East isn’t as strong as it has been in past seasons. Arizona State probably has a higher ceiling, but a lower floor. Both teams underachieved throughout the season and St. John’s comes in with some bad recent form with losses in four of the last five games.
Pick: St. John’s Red Storm +1
This is a pretty common story with the play-in games. Two teams with a high upside and a lot of talent that can’t seem to put it all together. The one that does here will advance and be an underdog to Buffalo in the first round in Tulsa on Friday. St. John’s is the better team in my estimation and played in the tougher conference, but it’s hard to like how they’ve played down the stretch.
But, because the Johnnies are more experienced and take care of the basketball so well, they get the ever-so-slight nod here.
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