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The morning after: three takeaways from St. John's exhibition loss to St. Thomas Aquinas

A rough start; how much was the newness and how much is just the team's talent level?

Wendell Cruz

I'll say this seriously: the future is bright and there is nowhere to go but up for St. John's after the dismal exhibition opener, a 90-58 loss to St. Thomas Aquinas at Carnesecca Arena.

Now, last night's team, missing Marcus Lovett and Kassoum Yakwe and Felix Balamou, would lose to the Chaminade Silverswords, the Wagner, maybe to a good high school team. But what head coach Chris Mullin has been preaching is improvement every game; so the next game's team won't look exactly like this.

A lot of the debacle on the floor was unfamiliarity - players trying to make flashy (or even simple) passes and just missing. Bad communication on boxing out. Bad spacing. Bad energy.

The bright spot

"Everyone's new," said Christian Jones, who seems to be awakening from a four-year torpor and putting his physical skills as an undersized forward to use. He was the bright spot, with 13 points and 11 rebounds battling in the paint when the other forwards struggled to do the same. And he had four steals.


But there were warts that probably won't go away this season.

Some casual running back on defense, giving up easy layups or wide open threes.

Generally poor rebounding.

An inability to generate good shots or bend the shape of the defense with penetration.

The team didn't just look unfamiliar with each other, they looked tentative, unsure when to shoot, unsure how to defend with conviction. The defensive rotation in transition and under the basket, in particular, were terrible.

Roster, Just Not Ready

And sometimes, lack of talent shone through. Mussini struggled to run the team, but provided the scoring punch, such as it was. He and Ellison and others blew layups. Durand Johnson was a scarecrow (ok, he scored 1 point) and couldn't get into the flow of the game. The bench was depleted enough (eight players available) that walk-on Elijah Holifield played serious minutes, showing some defensive energy.

Returnee Amar Alibegovic did not show much improvement from last year, going 0/3 with two missed threes. Darien Williams and Durand Johnson had quick, inaccurate shots and both picked up four fouls, despite not bringing a consistent defensive effort (which was a team-wide problem).

Practice reps will improve some of those issues. The style the team was trying to play looked to be a little more complex than what the previous regime taught their players (quick shots and isolation plays); the team looked to be unselfish, but that takes work and anticipation.

Five players had four or more turnovers; every player not named Elijah Holifield turned the ball over on 20% or more of their box score possessions. That's really, really rough, and speaks to unfamiliarity.

But some of those issues are personnel.

Newness is to blame, but so is the lack of a player who can get buckets (perhaps that's Marcus Lovett?) when everything isn't working. Where will the shooting come from if Johnson is quiet? Which of these players can break down an opponent or put a defense on skates in transition?

There's potential there. Yankuba Sima has physical gifts. Federico Mussini has some skill, Malik Ellison has some too.

"It's embarrassing but there's no pointing fingers," Mullin said after the game. "I take the responsibility. I thought they were more prepared than they were."

And the newness extends to the head coach. The team looked unprepared, unsure, unconfident. And that's on the head coach.