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Our St. John's preview

I don't think St. John's will be as bad as advertised...

...if only for the simple fact that no matter the losses the team had, they didn't play defense well, especially in terms of stopping dribble penetration. Lamont Hamilton couldn't finish at the rim, & Aaron Spears didn't play enough, and neither was a tremendous rebounder.

The big loss was Avery Patterson who was solid in the non-conference portion of the schedule, including 22 points against Texas. But he was awful in the conference games, topping 15 points at DePaul and in a volume shooting effort at Georgetown (4-13 from beyond the arc).

Qa'rraan Calhoun was an up-and-coming talent in the Big East and chose to transfer; the lithe forward was effective near the glass, especially on offensive rebounds and was developing a solid 3-point shot.

Frontcourt
Hamilton will be a bigger loss; his steady scoring paced the team and dictated their style of play. This year, will they play fast? Will they try to make newcomer Justin Burrell a post presence? No one knows; but the personnel would seem to dictate a faster style. Anthony Mason is better in transition than in making shots; in half court sets he falls in love with his outside shot, which isn't pretty enough for that kind of dedication.

 

Mason's running mates will be Justin Burrell, who the Red Storm hope will be a freshman of the year candidate. He's quick, athletic, a strong and tough leaper who is offensively raw. Here's hoping he turns out to be an excellent rebounder on the offensive end. Also in the frontcourt is likely starter Tomas Jasiulionis, who is widely panned as a bust. I think he falls victim to Coach Roberts' unwillingness to let players run, make mistakes, and learn. In limited time Tomas has not put up great statistical output but he does one thing I love in a collegiate big man - he knows he's nearly 7 feet tall.

[Years ago, I watched Georgia Tech's Luke Schenscher (and his slow feet) simply put his hands up and become a defensive presence. Tomas moves his feet and is effective in this role; he does, however, have a pair of stone covered hands when it comes to rebounds and putbacks. That skill isn't easy to learn, so i don't expect that to improve.]

The other newcomers are Dele Coker, a strong, powerful center who should come in handy for his shot blocking presence. he is also raw offensively, and is rumored to be a hard and eager fouler. Sean Evans is a less-heralded recruit from the Philadelphia area, where he was a noted defensive end and raw but effective basketball player. Redshirted last year, Rob Thomas may play a factor after recovering from a knee injury and when academically eligible in January. He provides some mid-range shooting, size, and inside scoring at 6'6', 220. Otaja Abit is a walk-on that I have seen little of, but may see some time this season.

Backcourt
Eugene Lawrence is where the story of the backcourt begins. He was the assist leader in the Big East in the 2006-07 season. And he turned over the ball almost as much as he assisted on baskets. Some were errors of aggression, and some were simply poor ballhandling. Lawrence, or Geno, as he's known, has been a tough defensive stalwart for the Red Storm for 3 years, and entering his senior year, will give up his body for the team.

Now he'll do it with breaks from freshman Malik Boothe (Rosedale on the map! Like Flavor Flav said), a slick-handling true point guard from catholic school power Christ the King HS. Boothe is the future of the point guard position for the team, though he's known as a questionable shooter and stands at 5'8". With Boothe in the lineup, St. John's will probably play Lawrence at the 2-guard for stretches, where his lack of quickness may be less evident and his tough, physical defense will be an asset.

Additionally, on a team that will be desperate for players who can score, having Lawrence look for his shot will be a plus. Former walk-on Liam Bietsy may also get some playing time this year.

At the 2 guard position, second-year player Larry Wright will be the likely starter. He showed flashes of potential last year and shot 40% from beyond the arc, yet Coach Roberts played Avery Patterson over him. This year, the job his his; he will have to improve his 2 pt shooting, which was 28% (13-46).

He will face some challenges to his playing time from the deep group of guards/ wings recruited for this year-- Paris Horne, DJ Kennedy, and Mike Cavataio. Paris Horne is a slashing, high-flying guard who teamed with Justin Burrell at prep school. Early reports indicate he may be a solid defender, which the Red Storm would welcome.

DJ Kennedy is touted as a do-everything forward and aggressive scorer; though when I hear "do-everything" I think "do nothing particularly well." He may prove to be the glue guy on this team this or next year. Cavataio had a great year at Queens' St. Francis Prep, and was known as an active athlete and excellent shooter. He may need a year or two to contribute heavily to the team's effort.

Coaching

Norm Roberts has not yet imprinted a certain offensive style on this team. He is, as listed above, on the "hot seat," which is not a good place to be with 7 incoming freshmen and no incoming players for the 2008 season (he has 2 scholarships to use). His teams had been solid defensive teams but took a step back last year, in part due to injury to Daryll Hill and to terrible play from Avery Patterson and some of the bigs.

Defense alone won't win games; the team has to score and this team is inefficient at best and unbelievably bad at worst, such as the 45-44 overtime win over Boston University. Lamont Hamilton was the offensive rock last year. This year, Coach Roberts must get the ball into the hands of Anthony Mason and Eugene Lawrence, and find easy shots for the freshmen, especially Justin Burrell. The defense must be stout for this team to exceed expectations.

Player retention is the other issue; last year Qa'rraan Calhoun looked to be a great running mate for Anthony Mason but transferred. Avery Patterson, after two years of junior college and one in the Big East, transferred. Ricky Torres, once seen as a star out of the NYC high school ranks, also chose to transfer since he hardly got the sniff the sweat on the court.

Added to the transfers over the years of players who may not have been, talent-wise, ready for Big East play, player retention seems to be a problem. I don't know why; but other coaches deal with their players with less turnover. Whether it is a recruiting or character issue, or a coaching issue, this must be resolved. The revolving door of players has made it hard to build consistency and continuity.

But I think that a number of Big East teams are not as good as advertised; and while pundits compare the 7-member class as a recipe for disaster a la U Conn's team last year, it does not have to be so. Those U Conn players looked confused and offensively challenged; whereas St. John's has an offensive pecking order set up-- Mason first, Lawrence as the distributor, Wright as the outside shooter, Burrell as the inside guy. If St. John's can stay out of the bottom four of the Big East conference, they will make the Big East conference tournament again, and that will be seen as a positive sign.