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From the stands: takeaways from St. John’s defeat of Bethune-Cookman on opening day

Fast break, defense and Marcus LoVett on opening day

Darien Williams skies for a dunk vs Bethune-Cookman
Wendell Cruz

“I’ve been coming to see St. John’s play since the Malik Sealy days,” a fan shared last night, “and this year it looks like we have a team – ten players that can play.”

For the season’s opener he was so right. Coach Mullin started the game with a tall team and Shamorie Ponds at point guard. Bethune–Cookman hit two quick threes to take an early 6-0 lead, but it was all St. John’s afterwards as the team coasted to a 100-53 victory.

The energy of both the team and the crowd began to crest with a Malik Ellison steal and breakaway dunk at the 17:00 minute mark of the first half. Shortly thereafter, Shamorie Ponds drove to the basket and dished off to Tariq Owens for a fifteen foot jumper and the score was tied.

At about 15:00 mark Federico Mussini, Kareem Yakwe and Marcus LoVett entered the game and a Yakwe block led to a Mussini three. From there, St. John’s was off to the races.

At the 14-minute mark Mussini stole the ball, rolled over at the court to hang on to it as Lovett raced down the left sideline. While lying on his back, Mussini made a perfect lead pass to Lovett for a layup.

The rest of the half became the Marcus Lovett show. Lightning quick, he consistently drove to the paint for layups or dishes to the St. John’s front line for dunks or to Mussini for threes. Mussini hit five out of six threes for the game.

Lovett showed an ability to shoot from deep, nailing several threes - including a step-back three at the half time buzzer.

Coach Mullin made ongoing changes in the lineup, even at one time playing four guards plus Richard Freudenberg on the court. Every combination worked.

So here are three takeaways from the game that the fan in the stands would make.

St. John’s has a fast break this year

How many fast break baskets did the team have last year? It almost seemed that there were more fast break baskets, led by multiple players but mostly Lovett and Ponds, in this game than in all of last year’s season.

LoVett led the layup clinic, which included with a breakaway dunk by 6’8”, 235 -pound reserve Darien Williams. The St. John’s bench erupted in high fives and fists pounding to the ceiling and then I looked to the scoreboard. It was point 100 for the team. The team got the ball one last time and Coach Mullin called out for the team to hold the ball without shooting.

The score was high enough.

Bench celebrates after Darien Williams dunk
Wendell Cruz

What about the Defense?

Bethune-Cookman is a (low) Division I team, but was missing its starting point guard which certainly held the team back. Nevertheless, St. John’s held them to 53 points.

After their quick start, St. John’s began challenging perimeter shots and Bethune–Cookman shooters began taking contested off balanced shots. Those tougher shots resulted in a shooting percentage of 33% and three point shooting of 21%. This was positive for St. John’s.

One challenge that became apparent was the tendency for St. John’s guards to be prone to head fakes and allowing opposition guards to drive the basket. Sima, Owens and Yakwe did a good job picking up the drivers.

Good positioning defense should lead to effective defensive rebounding and the elimination of put back baskets. So there are concerns that, for during most of the game, Bethune–Cookman, though smaller than St. John’s, slightly outrebounded the Red Storm.

There were segments of the game when the St. John’s defense allowed put-back baskets, even when opponents appeared to be boxed out. These skills need to be worked on as, when facing taller and more skilled teams, this could be a vulnerable point for the Red Storm

How about that new Scoreboard!

Yes, the brand new, very bright scoreboard was eye-catching but what we really are referring to is the information it portrays. Above the center of the court was a regularly updated statistical tally.

The first four indices gave data on shooting percentages and rebounding for the game. However, it was the next four indices that are really telling: assists, turnovers, steals and blocks.

At halftime, with St. John’s leading, here is the tally:

St. John’s Bethune–Cookman
Assists 7 4
Turnovers 5 9
Steals 4 2
Blocks 4 1

Add assists, blocks and steals and divide by the number of turnovers and we have a ratio that helps depict how the teams are playing regardless of shooting efficiency. In my experience, the team with the higher efficiency is most likely to be leading. At halftime the ratio for St. John’s was 3.0, the ratio for Bethune – Cookman was .77.

St. John’s played its best basketball during the first ten minutes of the second half when a 16 point lead rose to a lead of 35 points.

Here are the above stats at the 11:56 point of the second half of the game:

St. John’s Bethune-Cookman
Assists 14 5
Turnovers 6 12
Blocks 7 1
Steals 4 3

The ratios are even more striking: St. John’s at 4.2 and Bethune – Cookman at .75. Evaluating St. John’s ratio on opening day suggests one conclusion. For this one evening St. John’s played a superb game.

Looking Forward

A fan in the stands asked if I remembered the Arkansas teams coached by Nolan Richardson in the 1990’s. He stated Richardson had ten players who could all play and Coach Richardson shuffled then in and out of the line-up so there were always athletic, fresh players on the court. His teams would wear an opponent down.

Is this the potential for this year’s team?

Eight St. John’s players scored seven or more points led by Mussini with 20 and LoVett with 19. Eight players grabbed three or more rebounds in what was truly a team effort.

Bring on Binghamton … bring on Minnesota and (deep breath) bring on Michigan State. After opening day we are starting to believe. It is a long season. See everyone on Monday, November 14th.