Here are three things to watch for when St. John's (8-3) faces UNC-Asheville (4-7) on Friday at Carnesecca Arena.
Tip-off is at 7:30 p.m., and you can see the game on WatchESPN.
NEW ADDITION: Jamal Branch will make his St. John's debut, after sitting out the first semester, following his transfer from Texas A&M last year. The 6-foot-3 sophomore guard was ranked the 51st-best high school player in the Class of 2011 by ESPN, and averaged 4.4 points and 2.5 assists in 19.1 minutes per game for the Aggies, before electing to transfer after 11 games.
“I’m definitely excited," Branch said Thursday. "It’s been a full year since I’ve played now. Just watching the team has given me a great experience, and I’m ready to get things started.”
“Jamal brings the ability to create off the bounce and distribute the ball to his teammates," coach Steve Lavin said. "He can be a very disruptive defender when applying pressure on our opponents. We have to create possessions by putting pressure on our opponents both in full-court and in the half-court. That’s where Jamal can really be helpful."
TURNING POINT: This is the Red Storm's 12th and final nonconference game of the season. After this, there are 18 games to go -- all in the Big East. (Remember, St. John's is not playing Duke this season, for the first time since 1997-98.)
The Red Storm haven't played a very challenging schedule, but 9-3 would be a pretty good start for a very young team. It's important to pick up one more win here, against a team that has never beaten a Big East opponent, and enter the conference season on a high note.
After this game, St. John's has 11 days off, before playing at Villanova on Wednesday, Jan. 2.
THE BULLDOGS: UNC-Asheville made the NCAA tournament last season, and gave No. 1 seed Syracuse a major scare before losing 72-65. The Bulldogs were picked to finish third in the South Division of the Big South in the conference's preseason poll. They only have two Division I wins so far this year, but are coming off a six-point win at Northeastern on Tuesday, and almost beat No. 25 NC State in Raleigh, losing 82-80.
Six-foot-four senior forward Jeremy Atkinson is the team's leading scorer (17.7 ppg) and rebounder (7.5 rpg), shooting 51.1 percent from the field and 80.6 percent from the foul line. Keith Hornsby, a 6-foot-4 sophomore guard, averages 13.6 points per game, and is shooting 51.5 percent from the field and 47.7 percent from 3-point range.
UNC-Asheville is ranked 32nd in the country in blocked shots per game, at 5.27. Of course, St. John's is the top-ranked team in the country in that category at 9.0, thanks to freshman sensation Chris Obekpa. The Bulldogs are not a strong defensive team -- 258th in Division (out of 345 schools) in scoring defense (70.8 ppg) and 269th in field-goal percentage defense (44.8 percent). Also, they're turning the ball over 15.5 times per game, which ranks them 259th. (St. John's is fifth in the country in turnovers per game, at 10.1.)