St. John's fans were extremely excited to see the new look Red Storm streak up and down Carnesecca Arena, posting a thrilling 110-80 victory over former assistant coach Chris Casey's Division II CW Post squad. The Lavinwood student section was alive, the fans were into it, the game was televised on SNY, and "God is on our side" chants took on a new meaning with God'sGift Achiuwa running the floor at the center position.
With Achiuwa as God'sGift, and Phil Greene as the revelation in St. John's win, fans saw that high-level athleticism that drew Top-5 accolades on most major recruiting rankings. But despite those physical skills, the new players have a lot to learn as Mike Dunlap and the rest of Coach Lavin's staff mold them into an effective Big East unit.
This closer look at the game won't delve as deeply into those issues as Tim's "First Impressions" of the St. John's players post from earlier did. But this post will mine the box score for some clues about what this new Red Storm squad is about in the early going.
All of this comes with a caveat - it's the preseason, and the staff is installing their style. This is not a finished product, and these players will likely get better with each game of their freshman year.
[editor's note - you may want to review Tempo-Neutral stat terminology before continuing.]
Chris Casey evaluated the game from the Pioneers' perspective realistically:
"I felt we played well in the first half. The first five minutes of the second half really hurt us. They went on a spurt and got rolling. I really thought their length and athleticism hurt us. They are very talented offensively. I thought a couple times we actually guarded well, but they were so long and athletic that they could get shots over us pretty easy. They are a very talented team. I think our guys competed and played hard. I was happy with our effort."
Because St. John's didn't really handle CW Post. Is this defense a work in progress? Or is this the style the Johnnies will play?
Scoring: the best part
The Red Storm showed the ability to use their athleticism to get scoring opportunities.
God'sGift ran the floor with speed that should translate into opportunities against even the best opponents; he hit 77% of his shots (10/13), with most attempts coming at the rim. He was able to use quickness and body control to get to the tin - albeit against 6'6" defenders.
The team spaced themselves well and passed well - 48% of the made baskets were assisted, even though Nurideen Lindsey or God'sGift was usually looking for a quick shot in transition.
Still, the ball movement was crisp. Malik Stith looked like a real point guard on the floor, bulling his way to the right spots and making good passes, assisting on 16% of the team's shots while on the floor with no turnovers. And the ability of players like Achiuwa, Harkless, and Pointer to crash the offensive glass mean that even poor-shooting nights will be filled with scoring opportunities; they combined for 8 offensive rebounds.
The team didn't have a great jump shooting night... except for the nearly perfect Phil Greene, who drained open shots off of the catch (he was less accurate in his one shot off the dribble from the perimeter). D'Angelo Harrison shot a few short (2-7/ 28.6% from outside the arc), and that will come fairly quickly - first game nerves.
We'll keep track of the shooting accuracy, but for now? Nothing worth worrying about.
The game was played at a preseason blur pace, and the score reflected the number of shot-making opportunities that the Johnnies and the Pioneers had. Even in a fast-paced game, it's important to stop the other team from scoring. As our friend John from Big Apple Buckets pointed out, allowing a Division II school to score almost a point per possession (.994 points per possession) isn't great for the defense. For comparison, St. John's held 15 opponents below that mark last season with the senior laden team.
To be entirely fair, much of the good of St. John's defense last year was in turnovers forced, not the shots they made opponents miss. Last year's Red Storm were actually in the bottom 4 of the Big East in league play for 2-point (allowing 49.5% shooting) and 3-point defense (allowing 37.2%).
Their strength: they just didn't let opponents get the ball to the point where they could shoot last year.
The length of the Red Storm will help the 3-point shot defense, at least. And CW Post star Stefan Bonneau led the charge, taking the bulk of the possessions; in the pregame, we noted that Bonneau had Division I looks and is a deft scorer.
Additionally, CW Post went to the line 20 times against the Red Storm, a 29.9% free throw attempt/ field goal attempt rate. That could spell trouble. God'sGift Achiuwa could have been called for a couple more fouls in the game, and with a small, short-benched squad, fouls are no friend. But young players often are foul prone as they get acclimated to Division-1 basketball
On the plus side, the defensive energy was there, and there didn't seem to be much lazy, loafing defense. Even if Sir'Dominic Pointer got blown by a couple of times in the second half. Pointer did have 2 of the team's 3 blocks, and may still be figuring out how to play in the post in this zone look; it's different that the open, man-to-man style of AAU and many high schools with high level athletes. Dunlap highlighted him as one player who "will just continue to ascend" as the season progresses.
Rebounding: the yearlong liability
Asked about rebounding, Associate Head Coach Mike Dunlap admitted, "that is a liability and it will be a liability all year long." With Moe Harkless on the bench in the first half, CW Post and St. John's were "even" on the boards.
But CW Post had more offensive rebounding opportunities (because they missed more shots), and did better on the offensive glass, snagging 36.6% of offensive boards. That's a big number for ANY team, and the Johnnies have to clear the other team's misses.
On the plus side, the Red Storm did almost as well on their own offensive glass, grabbing over 32% of their infrequent misses. And Harkless' length made a difference on the defensive boards - he grabbed almost 43% of the available defensive rebounds while he was on the floor, which is very impressive.
The lack of depth and size will play a factor in the team's ability to handle things on the boards. These are all issues we knew about going into this season with the new class.
Overall, it was a very efficient performance. We'll be looking for improvement from Harrison, a tightening of the defense, and more highlights in next Tuesday's game against St. Mary's of Maryland. They probably won't provide the same resistance as CW Post did; the final outcome should be more like last year's game against Westmont.
And as we're getting ready for St. Mary's read this in depth profile about how the St. Mary's game came to be and the trials of a D-III coach, from Johnny Jungle.