St. John's opening month: high-energy pieces that need to start faster together

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

The Johnnies are 5-2 and yet, there is some unease after close wins, admissions that the team is still getting to know each other despite the European trip and two losses to tough Big Ten teams. Flaws are apparent; this team has become a second-half squad that makes fans worry throughout the first 20 minutes of the games.

But they have still won the games against lower-level squads Wagner, Bucknell, Monmouth and Longwood - more than one can say about Rutgers or Seton Hall, programs hoping to emerge from the doldrums and take over the New York City scene. Each of those programs has suffered a wince-worthy loss or two.

Penn State might be that kind of wince-worthy loss for St. John's come NCAA Tournament selection time - they could still be at the bottom of a deep Big Ten conference - but the Nittany Lions ain't the putridity of Fairleigh Dickinson. The Red Storm's best non-conference foe, WIsconsin, is undefeated; but the others have three or more losses, with all four of the non-major-conference teams carrying losing records.

Below, first-month MVPs, storylines/ concerns and what the other Rumblers thought (readers, chime in freely in the comments section).

The Rumble internal chatter

With the big negatives out of the way, it's important to note that the Red Storm defense remains strong, based on the athletic length and shot blocking all over the roster. The team continues to protect the ball and give themselves a chance to win. And opponents don't rack up assists/ fluid offense against St. John's.

The other Rumble writers chimed in about the season's start, and had this to say:

Andrew: Obviously it is still very early, but I am very surprised by the Johnnies not being able to start games strong.

I think they do have room to improve. There is a week in between games against Fordham and Syracuse which they could use (especially against 'Cuse) And then their schedule lightens up after that.

Will: For a team with so much height and mass in the post, I can't for the life of my figure out why this team is allergic to playing a more balanced style of offense.... We see what happens when St. John's gets the ball in the paint. They just need to do it more consistently.

John Alber: They have all the pieces, and a deep bench. Harrison....I'd just like to see him take over, create more. While watching the Penn State game and looking how we matched up, I felt like if this was a pick up game, the team could have won. Again, the pieces are unquestionably there. Hooper reminds me of a poor man's Steve Novak. He has the talent, but to put him in for 5 or 7 minutes won't allow him to prosper. There seems to be a hunger missing.

Offensive MVP: Phil Greene IV

Vitals: 10.3 points/ g; 3.9 rebounds/ g; 52.5% two-point shooting, 35% three-point shooting

Phil Greene has gone from a volume shooter to a microwave player, an athlete who helps will St. John's back when they are down.

Andrew adds, "Greene has saved this team from a loss or two. His point guard awareness and ball handling have always been good but now he is playing off the ball which has created more shooting opportunities. He is shooting nearly ten percent better than his freshman and sophomore year."

Can Greene - who has only three turnovers through seven games - keep it up? Is he the team's best player right now? Steve Lavin's somewhat surprise recruiting of Greene has paid dividends in the early part of the season.

Defensive MVP: Chris Obekpa

Vitals: 4.7 points/g g; 7.1 rebounds/ g; 5.7 blocks/ g

We wrote about how Obekpa changes the game, and he has received some national notice. But a reminder: Chris Obekpa is very, very good. He leads the NCAA Division I in blocks and in blocks per game, all while staying on the floor and shooting 56%, mostly on dunks and tip-ins - plays not run for him.

Is there an even more prominent Obekpa on the court, once St. John's finds him and feeds he ball? Or is his rawness limiting him from being a notable breakout performer?

Storyline: defense/ slow starts

St. John's defense is their strength. So why is this a point of concern?

Coach Steve Lavin spoke about creating energy against Georgia Tech, continuing by mentioning that the Red Storm would be a multiple-defense team, meaning that opponents would know to look for unnerving shifts from the Johnnies.

But if, as St. John's players have said, defense comes first, and that defensive energy generates offense, why does that energy come so late? The defense has been strong throughout games, but the team shows a different type of defense when they are down(or watching a lead dwindle to one or two possessions.

The Georgia Tech game was yet another slow start and sparkling finish, another fall behind and race ahead game, another tortoise start and hare finish. Only the Wagner game saw a better overall first-half margin for the Johnnies attack.

TEAM 1H Opp scoring 1H SJU scoring 2H Opp scoring 2H SJU scoring 1H Margin 2H Margin
Georgia Tech 0.97 0.78 0.74 1.22 -0.19 0.48
Penn State 1.25 1.03 1.01 1.20 -0.22 0.19
Longwood 0.66 0.75 0.74 1.15 0.09 0.41
Monmouth 0.77 0.81 0.88 1.15 0.04 0.27
Bucknell 1.10 1.00 0.90 1.17 -0.10 0.27
Wagner 0.61 1.00 1.01 1.07 0.39 0.06
Wisconsin 1.12 0.76 1.55 1.46 -0.36 -0.09

Reader Rekson notes the logical thought - that they can't keep these outbursts up all season. How can the team address the slow starts without losing control, or without losing their energy for the second half?

And what about the offense? Scoring against set defenses (or creating shots/ free throw opportunities) puts pressure on the other team to execute, and faced with the length of the Red Storm, a decent/ median offense would do the trick.

But too often, St. John's halfcourt offense eases into the junk food of basketball, the jump shot - easy to get, seems like it should fill the scorebook the same as any other two, but is lacking in heft and effectiveness.

Storyline: the quiet Sanchez

Scoreless on Saturday, Orlando Sanchez had lost his starting slot in favor of the suddenly-hot Max Hooper for the game against the Yellow Jackets. The addition of sniper Hooper could be great for balance, but Sanchez was spoken of as an essential element of this year's team - able to provide a low-post presence, block some shots, run the floor and facilitate offense.

Orlando Sanchez has had flashes and can handle the ball in transition. But the last two games have seen unforced turnovers from him. He has drifted out to the three-point line, where his stroke looks solid, but his shots have only gone in 23% of the time.

Will adds that Orlando "needs to be a little less selfish and look for his own shot, as long as it's in the paint!"

This is a truth. Sanchez has taken almost half of his shot attempts form beyond the three-point line. That is better than a long jumper with a foot ON the line, but it would be better for him to take shots where he has a real advantage in size to add another dimension to the Red Storm attack.

Storyline: waiting for Rysheed

Rysheed Jordan - he of the one-game suspension - has seen his minutes come and go, but saw vital minutes against Georgia Tech. His length on defense has been disruptive, but his shot has not fallen at all. He is shooting 26% inside the arc and 14% (1/7) outside the arc.

Jordan is also the team's leading assist man with 15 assists total, and 2.5 assists/ game. His passing game has shown dynamic flashes. The top-25 recruit could be the player who can break down defenses and get players like JaKarr Sampson and Sir`Dominic Pointer - athletic finishers who are not always adept at generating their own good shots - real chances to punish rims.

Postscript

St. John's has rivalry games against Fordham and Syracuse and then a trio of games against opponents in lower-level conferences which should still be challenges - a return match against San Francisco (who lost arguably their best player), Youngstown State for the ugly sweater game and hot-shooting Columbia before Big East play begins on New Year's Eve against Xavier in Cincinnati.

Steve Lavin expects the team's best basketball to be ahead of them in January and February. The goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament for a team filled with this much talent can happen then; but the losses that leave a team on the outside looking in can happen in November and December.

St. John's needs to grow into a cohesive unit quickly, finding consistent offensive contributions from the backcourt along with the defensive energy that powers scoring runs.

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