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With up-tempo squads Maryland, Ohio State, and Auburn remaining in St. John's path to St. Petersburg, the athletic advantage St. John's had over many of its opponents this year is no longer an issue. The difference will have to come from the sidelines, a place coach Mike Jarvis has patrolled for 14 years.
"If you take a look, a lot of times in the NCAA Tournament, games turn on a decision made by a coach," said Michael Bradley, senior writer for SLAM magazine. "And Jarvis knows the game. The guy's been around for a while. He can play it a lot of different ways as he's shown."
Against Maryland, Jarvis's troops will have to play it different. Every bit as athletic as St. John's, the Terrapins average 85.2 points a contest and have held their foes to 39 percent shooting from the field. Equally troublesome is Maryland's comfort with running the floor at a breakneck pace.
"Maryland is a lethal transition team," observes CBS college basketball analyst Clark Kellogg. "I think one of the things you have to do against Maryland is be aggressive. Yet your shot selection has to be pretty good so that you're not putting yourself in a position where you're taking quick shots Maryland rebounds and they're able to run."
Pace is paramount in the college game. Control it and you dictate the flow of your offense as well as the flow of your opponent's. So while talents such as Ron Artest and Erick Barkley make outscoring the Terps an enticing challenge, Kellogg expects to see the Red Storm feed off its defense.
"I think St. John's has got enough weapons to outrun Maryland, but I don't know if that's their best chance to win," says Kellogg. "Their best chance may be to selectively run, to be aggressive in attacking, and to mix up their defenses to try to keep Maryland five on five most of the time and not allow them to completely get into a racehorse game."
The Red Storm's reluctance to patiently dissect an opponent in favor of running every team off the floor has felled St. John's against lesser foes during the regular season. But if Saturday's dismantling of Indiana was any indication, the Johnnies may finally be listening to Jarvis's instructions.
After watching the Hoosiers slice and dice his man-to-man defensive scheme in the opening moments, Jarvis downshifted the Johnnies into a zone, forcing Indiana to shoot from the outside. Fourteen three-point bricks later, a well-schooled Indiana team was dispatched with their worst loss ever in mid March.
"It was a tremendous move simply because the motion offense that Indiana plays is really predicated on teams playing man-to-man," said Kellogg, who squared off against the Hoosiers with Ohio State in the early '80s. "Indiana's offense is much more effective if it's able to screen individual kids guarding individual guys as opposed to facing a zone that's active, where you've got guys covering an area, and that makes it much more difficult for them to attack it the way they want to."
Should the Red Storm players allow Jarvis to continue to move his athletic pieces in the tournament chess game, the Johnnies may find out that defense is best played by not merely the quick but the quick witted.