By Josh Adams
NEWARK, NJ- As Big East Conference play opened up on Friday afternoon, two original members of the Big East squared off as the St. John’s Red Storm traveled to Newark to compete against Seton Hall. The pandemic season of 2020-21 may have taken an ordinarily raucous crowd out of this rivalry but it was high level basketball led by St. John’s Julian Champagnie and Seton Hall’s Sandro Mamukelashvili The Pirates won 77-68 to take the Big East opener.
It seemed like Mamukelashvili had something to prove from the opening tip. He was controversially ejected from the game in Seton Hall’s win against Wagner earlier this week. Mamukelashvili was aggressively looking for his shot early and once again was the most talented player on the floor. The senior from the Republic of Georgia did it all on Friday.
Career high in points? Check.
Play point forward for most of the game? Check
Rebounds? Oh yes. Nine boards.
Mamukelashvili did everything but drive the team bus for the Pirates Friday night. It was a tour de force performance that had national commentators like Fran Fraschilla calling him an “All-American candidate” during Friday’s game. His total of 32 points against St. John’s eclipsed the 30 point career high he had against Penn State last Sunday.
Champagnie kept the Red Storm close for the entire contest. The sophomore had 24 points and 6 rebounds as the Red Storm kept the Pirates lead within single digits for the bulk of the game. Mike Anderson’s team couldn’t stop Mamukelashvili and Takal Molson (14 points) down the stretch. They drop to 5-2 on the year.
The Pirates (4-3) have now won three straight games without their starting point guard (Bryce Aiken). The team has pulled itself out of a little tailspin behind Mamukelashvili’s play and contributions from Molson and role players like Shavar Reynolds.
“We had no answers for Sandro”, said Anderson after the game. “He’s a pretty good basketball player.” Anderson later compared Mamukelashvili’s skillset to Kevin Durant’s in college. When I asked Mamukelashvili if he feels like he’s the best player in the country like his Coach feels he is, he smiled and said “I guess so. My coach is never wrong”.
His coach may be right. It sure looked like it on Friday.
– It seems like Seton Hall is designing plays early in the half to get Ike Obiagu involved in the offense. The 7’2” center started the game with a jam off an assist from Mamukelashvili and had another jam early in the second half off a rebound. He only had 6 points for the game but by design if he gets points early, the defense has to worry about him.
– The Red Storm clearly thought using a full court press would be effective against the Pirates who are missing their starting point guard. Surprisingly, the Pirates had no problem with it. They had good spacing and didn’t pick up their dribble early when pressed. It helps that usually four our of the five players on the floor for them can handle the ball. Running Mamukelashvili as a point forward with either Molson or Reynolds supplementing him was a good strategy by Willard.
– One minor thing I noted during the game is how much more vocal the Seton Hall bench was supporting the players on the floor. At the Iona game, the visiting Gaels were much louder while the Seton Hall bench was silent. Maybe that was noticed by them but with no crowd in 2020 it’s on the bench to be the cheerleaders and fans and they brought it today.
– Mike Anderson is starting to build his type of team at St. John’s and that’s good news for Red Storm fans. Champaigne is a stud and Vince Cole and Posh Alexander have bright futures. What set apart Anderson’s teams at Arkansas was his selfless system where they would methodically beat you with defense and turnovers. Right now, they settle for too many long jumpers and should use backdoor cuts a little bit more. This team is lean and they have to build up some muscle or the likes of Mamukelashvili or Theo John will have their way with them. They are no pushover and without a career high from Mamukelashvili, they could have left Newark with a win.