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St. John’s 2016-17 season preview

Player previews, what needs to improve, five key non-conference games and more

Exh - Bashir Ahmed serious with Yakwe, Ponds, Owens
St. John's vs Baruch Exhibition
Wendell Cruz

Here at Rumble in the Garden, we tend to be optimistic about the Red Storm’s hopes in year two of Chris Mullin’s tenure as coach of the school.

This, despite replacing half of the minutes on last year’s roster.

Despite eight wins last season.

Despite few statistically defining characteristics except for blocked shots, which didn’t prevent the Johnnies from being dead last in two-point shooting defense, giving up 53% shooting inside the arc.

Despite the offense struggling to get into sets, giving up live-ball turnovers, three-point shooting that was ninth in conference play, and two-point shooting and free throw shooting that ranked dead last in the Big East.

These are mountains for Chris Mullin to climb, coaching-wise, as he seeks to prove that he is the man for the job of building the St. John’s program into the consistently competitive program the Redmen were in the 80’s and the renamed Red Storm were at the beginning of the century.

It’s a good thing St. John’s had DePaul to make the defense look a little better; and a good thing St. John’s had Providence’s offense to compare to.

There’s not much we can take from DePaul’s defense besides the fact that it was atrocious. But the Johnnies will need to find a way to play defense that was far better than last season, where the only things of note that the team did was sometimes force steals and block shots.

That effort looks good in the box score, but when they are not accompanied by lowered shooting percentages by opponents, the numbers look hollow.

Better containment of attacking guards - which will require better rotations, individual quickness and strength - and stronger post defense by big men will be key to the defensive effort this season.

If St. John’s can find players who can rebound at a high level - through improvements in the returning big men or through newcomers - the defense would look far better than the squad that allowed too many second-chance attempts.

On offense, the Friars CAN be instructive.

Providence went to the NCAA Tournament despite shooting a lower percentage on three-pointers than the Johnnies, and being similarly bad on two-pointers. Providence mitigated a shooting disaster by being far more careful with the ball, getting the the free throw line far more often, and hitting the free throws when given the opportunity.

St. John’s may not be ready for that full leap, but the additions the team made should make the squad far more competitive.

Five non-conference bellwethers

St. John’s obviously has a difficult conference slate - any team that finishes tenth and gets beaten so soundly has a lot to prove in conference play to EVERY team, including DePaul.

But what about the non-conference matchups?

  1. Syracuse took a surprise L from St. John's last season... and took one at the Carrier Dome the season before that. They will be motivated by Jim Boeheim to light up the Johnnies as much as they can.
  2. A young and injured Michigan State squad will have faced Arizona and Kentucky on neutral sites and will have played a decent Florida Gulf Coast squad at this point. Being the opening game for the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Spartans should come ready to play - and might come in needing to get back on track. The tournament is also an opportunity to see just how competitive the Johnnies can be nationally.
  3. Playing at Minnesota used to be difficult, with the raised court and rabid fanbase. Minnesota will want to get that back, and St. John's will be playing on Friday night (an off brand day for a game) against improved talent and a coach in Richard Pitino desperate for wins.
  4. Penn State comes to the Garden for the Holiday Festival. This is a game St. John's needs to win; but with their new young four star guard Tony Carr and a need to make progress, expect a stiff test from Penn State.
  5. Fordham handled St. John's easily last season, pressuring the backcourt. Chris Mullin didn't take kindly to the loss, and Fordham is a weaker squad. Let's see if St. John's can open up a can of something filthy on the Bronx's Atlantic-10 team.

Season predictions poll

Player previews - lightning round

(Which may or may not be listed by projected importance, depending on if you agree on the order)

Bashir Ahmed has received a lot of hype as the hero that can elevate the St. John’s attack.. The 6’7” junior college transfer has the kind of muscular body college coaches drool over and aggressive offensive play that is expected to make him effective - maybe even to the point of drawing NBA scouts. He is expected to handle scoring when the system breaks down and chip in some rebounding and leadership as well. Will he be able to shoulder the load as a focal point?

The most important “newcomer” may be Marcus LoVett. The six-foot point guard has won fans with his slick passing and ballhandling, but his ability to simply break pressure coming up the court will be welcome for a team that struggled to get into basic sets last season. Freeing other guards to score, LoVett will have a significant role in determining what this offense is supposed to actually look like. His quickness could be an asset on the defensive end, as well, forcing steals and containing opposing ballhandlers. But is his decision-making in need of a year of seasoning? Or is he ready to explode on the scene, after sitting on the bench with Mullin and assistant Mitch Richmond in his ear?

Kassoum Yakwe returns after a solid freshman season where he earned All Big East accolades for his shot blocking, and also went to the free throw line frequently. For the undersized Yakwe, expanding his game with a mid-range jumper is key, so he can use his attacking quickness to get to the rim more aggressively. But in all areas, he needs improvement; on a 51% free throw shooting percentage in conference play, on his rebounding on the defensive end, on his turnover percentage, on his shooting percentage (46%, poor given his play was exclusively in the paint). His ability to make an impact on the game tailed off in his last four games; tapping into a consistent high-energy effort will make him a force in the league.

Freshman guard Shamorie Ponds arrives with much fanfare (and his face on the side of buses in an ad campaign) as a top-50 player, a hometown boy not afraid of putting on for his city. Slight of build but crafty, Ponds is both a secondary ball handler and a primary perimeter scorer, able to shoot from outside the arc and on runners and drives. How tough will his transition to NCAA basketball be? The team could have other scorers to pick up the slack, but plan one seems to be to let the Big East’s preseason Freshman of the Year put up some points with his multi-faceted game.

Yankuba Sima got to play a lot as a freshman, despite needing more seasoning overall. At times, his offense was mechanical, but his athleticism, agility and shot blocking were tantalizing, barely-tapped potential. Can he put that potential together in a more potent package after so much playing time and his experience in the FIBA U20 Tournament this summer? His minutes dwindled after his return from a hand injury last season, and he was ineffective at times, especially on the defensive glass. The second year will be telling, with a top-60 center coming next season and other options in the paint available for Chris Mullin.

Yes, Federico Mussini’s game fell off in Big East play. And yes, he is not a full-time point guard. But the craftiness of his game and the quickness of his stroke indicate that, even if not a starter or a star, Mussini can be an x-factor on the scoreboard. He has enough handle to get shots at the rim and has built some strength in the offseason. He mixed some solid and lackluster games in the FIBA U20 Tournament. He’ll need that increased strength and experience to help him be more physical on defense. With other ballhandlers and passers up and down the roster, Mussini has a chance to concentrate on the elite shooting skills that brought him to Queens.

For the die-hards, Malik Ellison represents solid potential as a breakout player and perhaps a referendum on Chris Mullin’s ability to develop players. A 6’6” guard who could play three positions, Ellison struggled at the rim last season (shooting under 40% on shots inside the line), but drew fouls at a high rate; the number of free throws he took in conference play was highest on the team, despite being seventh in minutes played. And he shot 38% from outside the arc. It took him a while to get his feet underneath him, but if he wants to grab the attention of the more casual fans, this is his year to shine. He’ll need to bring some consistency on defense and lower his turnovers, as well; there are at least four players (Ahmed/ Mussini/ Ponds/ LoVett) who are ahead of him in the pecking order if he doesn’t sharpen his game.

Despite not being heralded as a transfer from Tennessee, Tariq Owens might be a very important piece down low this season. Long and skinny at 6’11” and 200 pounds, Owens displayed a quickness in going after rebounds that will earn him time, especially if he continues to be an excellent shot-blocker. Owens has worked on a jump shot out to near the three-point line and can run the court well. He’ll have opportunities to make his name on the St. John’s roster.

Richard Freudenberg is a 6’9” German wing who has some NBA potential. Right now, he’s a skinny player who needs to display consistency. But make no mistake - in the St. John's exhibition win, Freudenberg made some nice plays, displayed some solid athleticism and court vision. Once he becomes more consistent, he could be another x-factor for the team - a player who can be a mismatch and create shots or take advantage of open spaces on offense. How will his defense be? The games will tell the tale.

Darien Williams missed most of last season with a shoulder injury; he has made his way back to play this season, and looked decent in the Red-White scrimmage. He did not play many minutes in the exhibition game, however, leading this writer to believe that on some level, he is behind the rest of the roster. But given his junior college bonfides, muscular frame and skill set, it’s not hard to see him emerging during the season as a stretch-four option for the Red Storm, one who can be a post presence on defense.

Amar Alibegovic brings energy and an inconsistent shot to the Red Storm. He almost transferred, but came back to the Johnnies. He didn’t always make an impact, but he did drop 15 loud points on Syracuse last winter and was a little better across the board last season than his freshman year. He is also changing his number once more, switching to #3 (Bashir Ahmed now has the #1. Alibegovic was #15 in his first year). He will see spot minutes as need be and give energy, if not consistency and rebounding.

Elijah Holifield is a walk-on guard who saw 15 minutes over the course of four of the team’s blowout losses last season. He wasn’t half bad - only committing one turnover, but shooting 1/11 from the field on the year.