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St. John's basketball: if you have a two-headed shooting guard...? (pt I)

The basketball recruiting wars are vicious, filled with rumors and promises of playing time and preparation for NBA stardom. Only a few coaches can play the whole "we’re [North Carolina/ Duke/ Connecticut], we’re one of the best teams, take it or leave it, I don’t need to blow smoke up your skinny 18-year old ass," and for the rest, it’s a hard slog to get blue-chip recruits or guys who fill a need on the team’s roster and in the system. Players are recruited and are recruited over, they transfer, they break out and go pro early, they struggle. A team’s roster often looks like a mismatched jigsaw of abilities despite the coaches’ best efforts.

But the best coaches are able to manage the uncertainty of college basketball with depth. There will be one player who might leave early, and a player who accepts his role until such time that he has a chance to step into a starting job or significant playing time. It’s expected, in the supposedly egalitarian world of athletics, that the cream will rise to the top, and obvious winners and losers will emerge from any position battle. Of course, it’s hard to evaluate some players against each other, whether it be in terms of intangibles, or in terms of differing skill sets, or in terms of what a team needs. Some players are apples, some are oranges. This is true in baseball and basketball, where players play both offense and defense, where one kind of ability (brute strength to get off one’s shot) is effective on one end, but a detriment (lack of quickness to defend) on the other.

There’s that oft-used football adage that comes up from the journalists, fans, and coaches, "if you have two quarterbacks, you have none." Such as with the Cleveland Browns giving time to Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson (until Frye was traded a week into the season) with Brady Quinn waiting in the wings. Or with the Jets, who will keep Chad Pennington around to compete with Kellen Clemens to see if Clemens can stop sucking long enough to win the job outright. Or the Jaguars with Leftwich and Garrard… et cetera, et cetera.

Which takes us to St. John’s. When Coach Norm Roberts arrived at St. John’s, he came with a rep as a recruiter. He brought in a couple of stopgap players who moved on (Ryan Williams, Cedric Jackson—now at Cleveland State), then some recruits who either couldn’t get eligible (Derwin Kitchen) or also moved on (Ricky Torres, Avery Patterson, Qa’rran Calhoun). And last year, he brought in his best recruiting class, with players at multiple positions who would add the athleticism needed to compete in the Big East. The Red Storm would have depth and talent… no starting spot would be safe. There would be more competitive battles for playing time. Practices would be tougher.

Today, one of the problems with St. John's squad comes from the illusion of depth. The current roster, by position:

PG: Malik Boothe (fr), Eugene Lawrence (sr)
SG: Mike Cavataio (fr), Paris Horne (fr), DJ Kennedy (fr), Larry Wright (so),
SF: Anthony Mason Jr. (jr), Rob Thomas (fr),
PF: Justin Burrell (fr), Sean Evans (fr),
C: Dele Coker (fr), Tomas Jasiulionis (jr)

It looks deep. All of these players have found themselves getting minutes on the court. Fans and journalists have wondered whether Larry Wright needs more time on the court than Paris Horne, who has taken many of his minutes. Anthony Mason Jr.’s injury was seen as somewhat of a boon, giving DJ Kennedy some court time, where he impressed with his rebounding and playmaking ability. Tomas Jasiulionis found himself sharing minutes with new Nigerian center Dele Coker. Rob Thomas’ return from academics and a severe knee injury was thought to create a logjam for minutes.

And with all the new players and returnees, St. John’s offense is still a clownish, turnover-filled affair. The following list is taken from Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency numbers as of January 9th. The first number is St. John’s offensive rating, and the number in parentheses is St. John’s ranking within that category compared to all 341 Division I men’s college basketball teams. Note that there are 80-90 teams between the 6 power conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, PAC-10, SEC) and other teams good enough to sniff the top-25 polls on a regular basis (like Gonzaga, Memphis, Butler, BYU, and the like):

St John's Efficiency Numbers, taken from kenpom.com Jan 9 08

Those are not great efficiency numbers on offense, and they are not offset by excellent defensive numbers. The team is decent (but not dominant) on defense but inefficient scorers. They give up too many free throws and don’t get to the line enough. Their shooting is woeful, even if they manage to harass other teams into poor shooting percentages. Part of the problem is playing 8 freshmen. But part of the problem is also the allotment of minutes to non-scorers, the lack of assists/ distribution, and poor shooting performances.

The "depth" creates a problems putting a complete team on the floor, with defenders, shooters, rebounders, and passers/ ballhandlers who won’t turn the ball over. Later, I will go through each player, and the plus they bring to the floor, along with the minus, and the player they block from court time.