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Storm at sea: previewing St. John’s in the Battle 4 Atlantis

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What is team’s state going into the tournament? What teams could they face?

NCAA Basketball: Bethune-Cookman at St. John
Carnesecca Arena is one and a half times bigger than the Battle 4 Atlantis ballroom.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

This week, St. John’s gets to enjoy some sun, sand and playing top programs in a small ballroom as they trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis over Thanksgiving, held in the Bahamas at the Atlantis Resort in a ballroom that seats around 3,900 people.

This, of course, is another chance at a big test for St. John’s. The competition includes three ranked teams in Louisville (10 in the AP poll), Baylor (20 in AP) and Michigan State (24 in AP); Wichita State is also receiving votes in the poll.

The other participants are Louisiana State, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth (doubling down on the state of Virginia, Battle4Atlantis?).

The games will be split between ESPN (for teams that win their first game) and the barely available AXS Network, which DirecTV viewers can enjoy (for the teams that lose their first game of the three).

The full bracket:

Battle 4 Atlantis bracket

And for those interested, the current KenPom ranks for each team:

Team Ken Pom Rank
Louisville 7
Baylor 23
Wichita State 24
Michigan State 27
VCU 34
LSU 89
St. John's 90
Old Dominion 107

Going into the tournament, it’s obvious that there are five teams that are likely NCAA Tournament contenders and opportunities for a team like St. John’s to come away with some surprise wins.

Scouting St. John’s

For good and bad, St. John’s has been led on the floor by the newcomers Shamorie Ponds (17 points, seven rebounds per game) and Marcus LoVett (24 points, five assists per game). And Tariq Owens has been a role-playing revelation, willingly banging despite his slim size, rebounding strongly on both ends and blocking shots at a very high rate in his 15 minutes per game.

What could be so bad about that?

The newcomer that was expected to lead St. John’s in scoring, Bashir Ahmed, a muscular JUCO wing, has struggled a bit in finding his footing, scoring 10 points per game but shooting 37% inside the arc and 33% from beyond the three-point line. He’s been a good rebounder on the defensive end, but more was expected of him.

More of a concern for St. John’s has been the play of the returnees - Malik Ellison, Federico Mussini, Yankuba Sima and Kassoum Yakwe.

Sima has been solid on the offensive glass and better at the free throw line. But his defensive rebounding and shot blocking haven’t yet shone, and he has averaged 10 fouls per 40 minutes - meaning he can’t stay on the floor. His defense - and stronger offense - will be needed for St. John’s to compete at a high level.

Federico Mussini was solid shooting from outside the arc in the first two games, but barely showed up in the box score against Minnesota (he did have three defensive rebounds). His shooting will be needed to help pace St. John’s and relieve pressure from Ponds and LoVett.

Kassoum Yakwe, after flashing an intriguing offensive game last season, has been quiet in all three games, taking three shots in each game. he did block five shots against Binghamton, and has been a solid defensive presence, but his athleticism will be needed for St. John’s to defend the paint against the athletes in the Battle 4 Atlantis.

Malik Ellison, said to be greatly improved, was sharper in his first game, but his last two outings have been games to forget. He will need to play with more confidence, better defense and make more plays if St. John’s is going to compete at a high level.

The defense for St. John’s has had some solid moments, but against Minnesota, the team showed struggles in defending the paint, and in making an impact when defenders don’t force turnovers. The pressure defense will need to create empty possessions for opponents if St. John’s is going to compete at a high level.

And if this team intends to play fast, some defensive recognition will also be key when the shots are not dropping.

St. John’s has a lot to put together - which makes sense, since more than half the team’s minutes are going to newcomers (in the KenPom “experience” category, St. John’s is third from last in Division I basketball).

But with all the returnees who walked through the proverbial fire last season, one or two of those players needs to step things up and elevate the team’s performance.

Who will it be?

The matchups

St. John’s starts play at 7 pm against Michigan State, a top-25 opponent with a lot of talent. That team plays a smaller lineup, so St. John’s could have the size advantage... or get their doors blown off by a guard- and wing-heavy team that can run and dunk.

The second matchup against either Baylor or VCU could be an opportunity. Baylor is very good and experienced, but may not have the talent ceiling of Michigan State (or they might, we don’t yet know); VCU is an experienced, defense-first squad with some players who have struggled with turnovers.

The other side of the bracket includes a very tough Louisville team - which should be the favorite in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament; a good Wichita State team; and beatable LSU and Old Dominion squads that could still defeat St. John’s.

Nothing is a given with regard to the outcome of this tournament; St. John’s hopes to go 3-0, obviously, but 1-2 is more realistic, and 0-3 could happen - and wouldn’t be the greatest disaster that has befallen the Atlantic Ocean. But it would dampen the excitement about this year’s team.

But there are chances for growth here, to set a course back to land that will pay dividends later in the basketball season.

Scouting the Battle 4 Atlantis competition

The Johnnies face Michigan State first - a team that has fallen to 2-2, but mostly because they played Arizona and Kentucky in their first week of play. But a skin-of-the-teeth win over Florida Gulf Coast raises eyebrows slightly. The Spartans of Michigan State have had injuries to their starting front line, and are getting by on the senior leadership of Eron Harris and the talent of freshman Miles Bridges, whose athleticism has Michigan State excited.

St. John’s second opponent will be either Baylor or Virginia Commonwealth. The VCU Rams have played three low-major opponents (Binghamton, UNC-Asheville and Liberty), winning all three. Led by seniors JeQuan Lewis and Mo Alie-Cox, the Rams also boast a pair of other seniors and former St. John’s commit Samir Doughty on the squad, now eligible to play after sitting out last season due to NCAA rules.

Meanwhile, Baylor beat down on Oregon (missing star Dillon Brooks) and knocked off Florida Gulf Coast at home. Playing a grinding style led by big man Jonathan Motley and guards Al Freeman and Miami transfer Manu LeComte, the Bears also sports shot blocker Jo Acuil and jack of many trades Ishmail Wainright, who was recruited heavily by St. John’s.

Also in the Battle 4 Atlantis field:

Louisville is 3-0, with wins over William & Mary, Evansville, and Long Beach State - all solid mid-major squads. Despite playing a Division-I average pace, the Cardinals have held each opponent under 60 points - and are the second-most efficient defense to date per-possession in Division I hoops. Sophomores Deng Adel and Donovan Mitchell have been strong, as have point guard Quentin Snider and forward Jaylen Johnson.

Wichita State is 4-0, with wins over Tulsa and Long Beach State, plus victories over South Carolina State and Maryland-Eastern Shore. Gregg Marshall's team continues to be one of the Division’s toughest defenses, holding three of those opponents to 55 points or less; the opener against South Carolina State had a final score of 85-39. Sophomore Markis McDuffie has been given the charge to lead the team, and Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp is expected to play a large role as well, though the Shockers have played a fairly deep roster.

Louisiana State have not yet been heavily tested, playing Wofford, Southern Mississippi and North Florida. After some prominent talents have departed from the program, the Tigers have leaned on Antonion Blakeney and former St. John’s commit Brandon Sampson for major minutes; center Duop Reath has been a big factor on the glass, pun intended.

Old Dominion, 25-game winners last season, are 2-0 but fairly different after losing two seniors. This year, junior Brandan Stith leads the Monarchs, who have played local competition so far (James Madison and Richmond). The team has excelled on the offensive glass but will have a lot to prove against major-conference competition.