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From the Stands: three takeaways from St. John’s loss to Delaware State

Zone defense strategies and a leader on offense needed

SJUvDelState Wendell Cruz

Per multiple sources, after St. John’s 79-72 loss to the Delaware State Hornets, Federico Mussini said, “when we play big teams everybody is high and everybody is ready from the beginning. So we just have to respect everybody”.

Mussini’s honesty is appreciated. But where is the leadership on the team to assure everyone is high for every game? Especially for a team in search of a breakout performance?

After four tantalizing games away from home, in which the Johnnies had a lead in the first half of each game, the team returned to Carnesecca Arena for a contest with the Delaware State Hornets. First half leads of between 5 and 13 points against quality opponents, particularly Michigan State and VCU, left hope that a quality performance throughout the entire 40 minutes would reignite the Johnnies.

Talking with fans in the stands, prior to the Delaware State game, a couple of universal concerns were shared. First fans wondered “where is the fast break this year? With heralded guards added to the team and an advantage in size in many games, there should be more fast break baskets than we are seeing.”

The second was “when will the front court contribute?”

One season ticket holder shared, prior to the game, “the team seems to be trying to engage the front line at the beginning of each game. There were successes and failures, like missed dunks and dropped entry passes. The problem seems to be, after a miss or two by the front line, the guards seem to feel that they take the game into their own hands.”

Little did the fans know what was to follow.

St. John’s was thoroughly outplayed by Delaware State last night. They had more turnovers than Delaware State, which shot over 58% for the game. St. John’s prided themselves early in the season in the number of assists per basket, but yesterday Delaware State recorded 19 assists to St. John’s 13. Only in blocks and rebounding totals did the Johnnies show any superiority.

Coach Mullin after the game summarized “they scored at will”.


Takeaway One: Defense & contain issues

Delaware State played a zone most of the game. Why not St. John’s?

Perhaps it was not taking the squad from Delaware State seriously at first, but seriousness should have set in shortly thereafter.

At times the Johnnies seemed confused about assignments, even on out of bounds plays by Delaware State. Yankuba Sima was seen 20 feet from the basket on defensive assignments. Was that in the defensive plan?

Guards were not able to contain Hornet guards from breaking them down and driving into the paint. When on the floor, Kassoum Yakwe (7 blocks, 4 rebounds) did a reasonable job picking driving guards up but he needed help.

Why were the St. John’s guards unable to contain these attacks to the rim? Is it defensive technique? Was it the fact that Delaware State showed an ability to hit the three point shot early in the game? Would a zone defense by St. John’s, even if only implemented at times, be an answer to the penetration by opposing team’s guards?

Takeaway Two: Who is the leader on this team?

Who is the player whose game impacts the performance of teammates in a positive way? In the first few games, Marcus LoVett seemed to be that leader. But he did not enter the Delaware State game until the fourteen minute mark.

Without LoVett on offense St. John’s started the game passing the ball around the key until someone was free for a three point play. Rarely did anyone penetrate into the paint.

Three open threes at the beginning of the game resulted in three missed shots. It wasn’t until the 16:45 mark that anyone penetrated the circle at which time Mussini took a nice inbounds pass to the hoop for a layup. It wasn’t until the 11:33 mark that St. John’s got the ball inside to a front court player, in this case, Amar Alibegovic, who made a nice pass to Bashir Ahmed for a corner three.

Someone needs to take charge and make sure offensive sets with a purpose are in place and plays are run. Where were the backdoor cuts by Johnnies so prevalent in earlier games?

After the game, LoVett acknowledged the need to impact his teammates positively.

Takeaway Three: So What Went Right?

The Johnnies did fight back and, once again, made the game close at the end. Late in the first half there was a quick, behind the back dribble at the foul line by Marcus LoVett that resulted in a driving basket. It demonstrated his penetrating skills although not frequently on display during this game. There was a solid offensive game from Bahir Ahmed (19 points) giving fans the hope that scoring this year does not have to be dominated by Shamorie Ponds and LoVett.

There was Kassoum Yakwe making some nice passes out of the top of the point in the beginning of the second half, first to Ahmed for a three pointer and then to Sima for a short turnaround. Yakwe seems to be developing a corner jump shot. If he could develop a jumper from the foul line, this could open up the floor as St. John’s attacks zones they face.

There was Shamorie Ponds, taking one of his nine rebounds, pushing the ball up court and making a fast break layup. Shortly thereafter he stole the ball and made a second layup reducing the game deficit to six.

Lastly there was Mussini (11 points) missing a steal by about two inches that would have reduced the deficit to four with three minutes to go. He played an important role in the game, part of the small lineup which almost brought the team back.

Late pressure on Delaware State by Shamorie Ponds & Federico Mussini
Wendell Cruz

What’s next?

So it is on to Tulane on December 2nd. The assumption is that the Johnnies will take no one for granted in the future. Although the box score from the Delaware State game suggests that there is little hope for this season, hope is in the head of each player and should be in the heart of both players and fans.

St. John’s needs to develop plays to attack a zone effectively. It needs to install a zone when a defensive change is needed in order to take an opposing team out of its comfort zone on offense.

A trying time but fans must have faith that the low point of the season has been reached and that it has been is an effective learning experience for this young team.