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NCAA Tournament Preview Southeast Region - First Round (11) Gonzaga vs. (6) St. Johnís

Thursday, March 17 – Approximately 9:45 PM ET

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As a phoenix rising from the ashes, the St. John’s Red Storm have played their way into relevance in the landscape of college basketball. Under new head coach Steve Lavin, the storied St. John’s basketball program has been revived. The Red Storm are back in the tournament for the first time since 2002. Unfortunately, they are limping into Bracketville both literally and figuratively after a key cog was felled. Leading rebounder, assist man, and steals leader D.J. Kennedy was lost for the season during the Big East Tournament – the senior got knocked out of SJU’s Big East Tournament quarterfinal loss to Syracuse. This shake-up leaves the Johnnies… well… shaken as they prepare for their long-awaited return to the big stage. Joy and sadness will co-mingle for a team that has a difficult emotional balancing act on its hands.

On the other side of the aisle lies a program that has become accustomed to playing in March. Head coach Mark Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs are in the tournament for the 13th consecutive year. With a roster full of young talent, the Zags will embrace the 2011 Tournament and view it as a prime proving ground for the Bulldogs going forward. This isn’t to say Gonzaga doesn’t have the capability to move deep into the second weekend; it most certainly does. The problem with Gonzaga has been consistency more than talent. The Bulldogs match up nicely with the long, athletic Red Storm from the Big East. Seven-footer Robert Sacre will be huge in the middle while wings Elias Harris and Steven Gray have the ability to score the basketball. Gray, though, has never been a good decision maker, and basketball IQ has often caught up with the Zags in past NCAA Tournaments. If Gonzaga can step up defensively, it could be a very dangerous team during this particular month of March. The Bulldogs don’t have a bad draw, and a first-round victory over St. John’s could give them momentum into a winnable second- round matchup.

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Without the aid of Kennedy, the Red Storm’s senior leader, St. John’s will have to rely even more on All-Big East selection Dwight Hardy, a tremendous scorer with the capacity to take over ballgames and hit clutch shots under pressure. Hardy averaged 18 points per game and willed the Red Storm to a few victories through his unconquerable toughness. Look for the Red Storm to pound the interior and try to physically dominate the Bulldogs. Although Gonzaga has a pedigree which breaks the mold of “mid-major,” teams like Memphis and Duke have had success at using the inside game to their advantage against Gonzaga. Interestingly, despite its physical prowess, St. John’s is a below-average rebounding club. The Johnnies also only scored five road wins all season, and traveling across the country to play in the elevated altitude of Denver might just give the Bulldogs an advantage.

One could argue that Gonzaga was under-seeded, and therefore, a tougher first round matchup than St. John’s deserved as a six-seed. Those arguments will do nothing to prepare either team for the contest, however. This clash will be decided in the paint and in half-court sets. If Gonzaga can rise to the occasion on defense, it should find good success at both ends of the court. Playing without glue-guy Kennedy is an unknown commodity for St. John’s, which seeks its first Tournament victory in over a decade.

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer
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