“Last year was like a freshman team of skinny kids playing a varsity team”, a season ticket holder replied when asked for an assessment of St. John’s basketball program going into this exhibition game, the only one the Red Storm will play before kicking off the season a week from Friday. “We are New York and all the New York high school point guards go to other schools. I can’t remember when we had a real point guard at St. John’s”.
One thing St. John’s fans can believe in, after watching an exhilarating exhibition performance last night against a good division three team, Baruch College, is the possibility of not one but two capable point guards are on this year’s roster.
And one other thing became evident from my vantage point in the stands.
Twenty-three year old Bashir Ahmed is not a skinny freshman to be pushed around by the likes of Big East powerhouses.
It all came together after the media timeout at 11:59 in the first half. Freshman Richard Freudenberg hit a three after a fast break pass from Shamorie Ponds, and it was off to the races for St. John’s. There was a nice pass from Freudenberg to Bashir Ahmed. There was a fifteen foot jumper by Kassoum Yakwe from the corner that gave hope for St. John’s fans that Yakwe’s work in the off season to develop his shot had indeed been successful.
There was Amar Alibegovic blocking a shot, hitting a three and fighting for position under the defensive boards, disrupting Baruch bigs from establishing position for easy shots. Freudenberg displayed excellent instincts making several nifty passes while scoring ten points and blocking a shot, all in the first half. No longer was there a group of skinny, overmatched freshmen and grad transfers on the floor for St. John’s.
However, the evening really belonged to the guards, Marcus LoVett, Shamorie Ponds and Federico Mussini. So our three takeaways, as viewed from the stands at Carnesecca arena, are as follows:
Takeaway One: the guard play
The hope for a “real point guard” at St. John’s, for at least one game, was met.
Even when St. John’s started slowly last night it was clear that Marcus LoVett was leading the offense. He was in charge as teammates ran plays and set picks for one another in preparation for entry passes by LoVett.
Once the defensive pressure from St. John’s took effect, LoVett and fellow guards Shamorie Ponds and Federico Mussini led the break down the court. The guards also impressed in assisting in the defensive rebounding. While Ponds struggled with his outside shot early, Mussini brought back memories of the beginning of last year, hitting several threes often on assists from a penetrating Lovett. He also impressed with two court-long dashes on fast breaks finishing with layups.
Mussini finished the game with 21 points while LoVett added 14 and Ponds 12. Ponds and Lovett combined for eight steals.
Even walk-on Elijah Holifield impressed by hitting a three and pushing the ball up the court on subsequent possessions. With the impending return of Malik Ellison, who did not play due to injury, depth at the guard position appears evident for this coming year.
Takeaway Two: defense and rebounding… what a difference a year makes!
Fans in the stands shared their impression that uninspired defense and the lack of effective rebounding, particularly on the defensive boards, doomed the 2015-16 team.
This was not the case last night.
It is true that St. John’s had a clear height advantage over the Baruch squad and the team did not disappoint. Not only were there few put back baskets for Baruch, it was rare that they even got a second shot.
One of the few times a second opportunity came Baruch’s way was after three St. John’s defenders grabbed a rebound after a Baruch miss and knocked the ball out of each other’s hands. Coach Mullin will gladly take a miscue due to the rebounding effort of three of his defenders.
Kassoum Yakwe, when in the game, made a defensive difference in the paint, despite only recording one block and three defensive rebounds. There was one moment that Yakwe was caught out of position leading to an easy basket for the man he was guarding. On their next possession Baruch came back with an entry pass to the same player but Yakwe adjusted, keeping him out of his comfort area. A short time later a third attempt at the same play was met by a Yakwe block.
From then on the Baruch offense was mostly shots from the outside, which were usually met with a hand in the face by St. John’s defenders. Holding Baruch to 49 points in a wide open game speaks volumes about the defensive pressure asserted by St. John’s last night.
Takeaway Three: teamwork
At halftime another season ticket holder admitted never attending a game last year, giving every one of his tickets away to friends and family. “It was painful to watch last year but I see hope, a team this year.”
It was truly the team effort that stood out last evening. There was little one-on-one action and many baskets were a result of assists from a teammate (20 assists on 38 made shots).
LoVett magically assisted with several no-look passes which teammates anticipated and usually resulted in scores for St. John’s. Yakwe and Ahmed were recipients of such passes early on the second half when Lovett’s ability to penetrate the paint was taking a toll on the Baruch defense.
At the 14:00 minute mark of the second half a back door cut by Ponds and an entry pass by Lovett was a thing of beauty. Equally impressive was the passing ability of the big men on the team. Yankuba Sima made several nice passes on give and goes and back door cuts by teammates.
No performance is perfect, of course. While several Johnnies hit threes last night, there was a period of play when ill-advised threes were taken out of the shooter’s range.
Learning when to take a three will be important when playing more talented opposition which will begin in the upcoming scrimmage with a ranked Rhode Island team this Saturday. What was evident in this game was the teamwork being displayed by all as even the red shirted players on the bench were enthusiastically encouraging their teammates at every timeout.
Some forty years ago Tug McGraw of the New York Mets summarized the late season heroics of the team with the slogan “You Gotta Believe.” The Mets went on to the World Series that year.
It is only one game, an exhibition game, but the fans in the stands were overheard sharing with one another as they left the arena – “You Gotta Believe” about this year’s team.