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Non-conference look back: what's gone right & wrong for St. Johns?

The four by four look at what's gone right and wrong in non-conference play.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

To end the year - and before the Creighton game tips off at 2:00 pm, but after you read the Rumble game preview and the Rumble Q & A - we take a look at four things that have gone right and four that have gone wrong for the Red Storm in the early going. And comment with yours below!

What's gone right

The returnees can play!

Troy & Norman: Christian Jones is a decent starter, Felix Balamou was a steadying force before his injury, and Amar Alibegovic was the x-factor against Syracuse.

Coming in to the season, there were probably some concerns (with reason) that Red Storm fans had with Christian Jones playing big minutes for this team. After a 2012-13 season that saw him make seven starts, Jones would redshirt the following year and would play only sparingly on last season's senior-heavy NCAA Tournament team. But Jones has started all 13 games so far this season for Chris Mullin's squad, providing some leadership for the young team and some key play on the court as well.

In just under 29 minutes per game, he is averaging 8.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game--all career highs. Jones has scored at least six points in all but two games this season, and he's grabbed at least five rebounds seven times, including a 10-point, 11-rebound effort in a loss against NJIT on December 20. For St. John's to be anywhere near competitive in conference play, they'll need Jones to continue this stellar play.

Meanwhile, Felix Balamou had some diverse stat lines, providing rebounds and assists against Rutgers (11 total rebounds, seven assists), Indiana (14 points, four rebounds, four assists) and Fordham (14 points, five rebounds, five assists). Alibegovic dropped 15 points and chipped in five rebounds in the win over Syracuse.

Chris Mullin and his staff can draw up a gameplan

Troy: Even after some recent letdowns, Chris Mullin and his star-studded coaching staff likely have Red Storm fans giddy with excitement for the future of this program. This staff's excellence was best put on display in a December 13 rout at Madison Square Garden, where the Johnnies pounded their rival Syracuse's famed 2-3 zone in a 84-72 victory. Mullin and his staff had the Johnnies run a 1-4 offensive set in that game, forcing the ball inside to big men who would either attack the rim or kick the ball out to shooters for open 3-point shots. This resulted in St. John's shooting 30 for 61 from the field throughout the afternoon, including 12 of 24 from downtown.

Syracuse blog Nunes Magician has a nice breakdown of how the Red Storm's gameplan worked to perfection that day. Although Mullin is very much at the start of his head coaching career, St. John's fans can take solace in the fact that he'll have a ton of help on the sidelines going forward.

Shot blocking

Carmine: The Red Storm may not have Chris Obekpa or Sir'Dominic Pointer roaming on the floor, but they do possess a young dynamic duo of Yankuba Sima and Kassoum Yakwe to alter shots in the paint. Sima (3.5 blocks per game) and Yakwe (2.0 blocks per game) have helped the team jump to 5th in the nation in blocks and first in the Big East Conference.

Sima had six blocks versus Rutgers and five blocks versus St. Francis Brooklyn. During conference play, he will have to stay out of foul trouble in order to maximize his potential on the defensive end of the floor. Yakwe, who's first game was on the road against Fordham, is just a freshman and will continue to develop with his defensive rotations and timing.

Generating free throw opportunities

Norman: The Johnnies have earned 295 trips to the free throw line, 90th in the country (their free throw rate, aka free throws attempted divided by shots taken, is 41%, 86th in the nation). The system is working, even without a bunch of superior slashers. The point guards have had shots at the rim, the forwards get opportunities to attack the basket, and the multi-dribble, off balance long two-point jumper numbers are low.

(We won't harp on the ridiculously low number of MADE free throws... 64% is a rough, rough number. Good thing opposing teams have shot 63% to make the games winnable.)

Things that have gone wrong

Point guard depth

Troy: Federico Mussini needs some help, will it ever come? Looking at things purely by the numbers, Federico Mussini is having a very decent freshman season for the Red Storm. The Italian import leads the team with averages of 14 points and 35 minutes per game, and he's scored in double-figures in all but three games this year.

But the reason for those impressive numbers are likely the result of the Johnnies simply having no other options in the back court. We're beating a dead horse here, but Mussini is not a natural point guard, and his struggles running the point (3.1 turnovers per game) haven't appeared to get any better throughout non-conference play. With virtually no natural ball-handlers on their roster, the Red Storm rank 315th out of 351 teams in the nation in turnovers (304th in tempo free turnover rate).

Mussini and the Red Storm desperately miss partial qualifier Marcus LoVett, but he won't play this season. And although he would be a huge help in conference play, would it even be worth it for St. John's to play LoVett (if cleared) for 18 games and waste a year of eligibility in what is clearly a rebuilding season?

Perimeter defense

Troy: Believe it or not, when you can't defend the 3-point shot and have trouble hitting 3's on offense, it's pretty tough to win basketball games. In their current three-game losing streak the Red Storm has allowed opponents to hit 29 of their 57 shots from downtown, while the Johnnies are shooting just 28 percent from 3 in that stretch. It seems as though right from the start of this season perimeter defense has been an issue for St. John's, and while mid-majors like Wagner and Niagara may miss those open 3's, teams in the Big East will not. This is probably the best and deepest Big East that we've seen since the conference was restructured two years ago, and if the Johnnies do not have any answers towards defending the 3, it could be a very long two months of conference play.

Durand Johnson's consistency

Carmine: While the former Pittsburgh Panther has raised his level of play in big games against Syracuse and South Carolina, Johnson has become a very streaky shooter. The graduate transfer is fearless with the basketball and has the ability to create, but his inefficiency and poor shot selection (at times) can effect the teams' motion offense.

If the Johnnies are going to be competitive against some of the top teams in the Big East, Johnson will have to improve his shooting splits - 37 percent from the field, 31 percent from downtown and 74 percent from the line.

Sharing the basketball

Norman: The Red Storm have turned the ball over on 21% of their possessions against Division I opponents in non-conference play - and not just against high-major opponents. Niagara, Fordham, St. Francis, and UMBC all enjoyed the fruits of the Red Storm's inability to break the press, with their players enjoying gaudy steal numbers in their statlines.

The Johnnies want to have a flowing, motion offense - no easy feat with young players - but in many games, that offense, a lack of experienced passers, a new roster, and difficulties against defensive pressure have meant that the Johnnies give up a few more empty possessions per game than their opponents do.