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November in review: what went wrong for Chris Mullin’s rebuilding St. John’s Red Storm?

At 2-5, St. John’s isn’t having the surging start they had envisioned

Mullin has had much to be unhappy about in the early going.
Wendell Cruz

What we thought we would be writing in this space after a month into the season:

St. John’s young core has some growing to do, but the team’s sole win over Old Dominion and three victories against low-Division I squads show that despite a 3-3 record, there are pieces and potential on the team.

What we are writing instead, at our most cerebral:

St. John’s men’s basketball is rushing headlong into a space where the air of doubt is going to cloud the future, and this team needs to reel off some wins and improve the effort, scheme and execution for fans to keep faith in the process for this year and in the future.

The quote above has what some would characterize as drama.

But this is, strangely, an early tipping point for the 2-5 Red Storm.

Most people believed that even a Great Leap Forward would leave the squad at around .500 on the season. The team is banking on a lot of youth and emerging players, too much to expect much more.

But the “process” of this year is to develop a coherent style of play, to bring along a young core and perhaps find a duo or trio of stars - with the expectation that next year’s newcomers (two transfers and a big-bodied seven-footer) would life the team’s fortunes to being within sniffing distance of the NCAA Tournament.

By that metric, the first month has shown some issues to worry about, as the offense has leaned heavily on two players, while last season’s freshman returnees have generally struggled in their sophomore years.

To recap:

St. John’s went 2-5 in November, defeating Bethune-Cookman and Binghamton, and falling on the road to Minnesota. And then the Red Storm lost all three games in the Battle 4 Atlantis - all to teams ranked in the top 100 on KenPom. The loss to Old Dominion was disheartening, after competing against VCU and battling Michigan State. And then the loss to Delaware State was, perhaps, enlightening.

There, St. John’s wasn’t a team that didn’t want to win. They were a team that started off sluggish and perhaps overly cerebral; a team that lost faith in their offensive philosophy when things got difficult, and a team whose current defensive issues were compounded by frustration, ball-watching, bad habits, a lack of physicality and a lack of foot speed.

Other than that, the play was quite lovely.

Here are a few of the issues St. John’s needs to address in the next month, keeping in mind that this team was known to be in development, is led by a pair of newcomers

Can the defense improve? Or at least hold a little better?

St. John’s has held four of seven opponents under 1 point per possession in the month and has held every opponent before Delaware State to under 50% shooting inside the arc.

Those are good things, even as the interior defense needs to be sharpened and the ability of opponents to make runs needs to be stifled.

But St. John’s defense has also allowed very high assist rates to opponents, with the opposition earning an assist on 58% or more of made baskets after the Bethune-Cookman game. It seems like a small thing, but one Rumble reader has noted that maybe the defense is taking the freedom of movement idea in basketball too seriously.

Numbers below taken from Sports Reference.

Date Opponent W/L SJU ORtg SJU Ast% Opp/ DRtg OPP Ast%
11/11/2016 Bethune-Cookman W 135.1 0.636 71.6 0.300
11/14/2016 Binghamton W 100.0 0.571 79.2 0.636
11/18/2016 @ Minnesota L 103.6 0.310 110.8 0.581
11/23/2016 Michigan State L 83.8 0.400 98.6 0.640
11/24/2016 VCU L 94.5 0.522 102.7 0.720
11/25/2016 Old Dominion L 75.3 0.500 86.3 0.750
11/29/2016 Delaware State L 105.9 0.538 116.2 0.594

Where other defenses bump opponents off their path, St. John’s has allowed opponents to catch the ball cleanly and hit the shots that they want - as opposed to making opponents create their shot, which has a far lower rate of success.

Better defense, better confusion would lead to not just runouts on missed shots - but forced turnovers, a chance to put the athleticism of St. John’s to work in the open court.

There is the individual complaint about player performance on defense - with Federico Mussini grading poorly and Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett in need of improvement, among others. But Delaware State aside, the defense hasn’t been awful. But it could be much better, and right now, there is no “beast mode” where the defense has a thing they do to get stops - a set of steals in a row, forcing awkward long jump shots, et cetera.

We will return to the defensive issues when we talk about the offense - because the choice/ need to take deep shots leads to long rebounds and puts pressure on the defense to defend in transition.

Activate the big men.

On defense, the big man trio - Yankuba Sima, Kassoum Yakwe and Tariq Owens - have had some nice moments - with Kassoum Yakwe leading the charge as a high-end shot blocker. The team has blocked at least six shots in every game.

But blocking shots does not automatically equal a good defense. And the rebounding from the trio leaves the team with a real weak spot. With Shamorie Ponds and Bashir Ahmed being active rebounders, Yakwe and Sima have faded from the glass - and from being able to trigger and outlet to the very fast Ponds and LoVett for the kind of transition offensive look that pressures a defense.

And then... there’s the biggest issue, their offense.

Yankuba Sima and Kassoum Yakwe may be struggling with a change in offensive style. Where each was able to take an entry pass and back an opponent down (like Sima) or attack with a dribble (Yakwe), both are now looking to get hot passes from Marcus LoVett and convert the opportunities he creates with penetration...

Except Yakwe and Sima are struggling with the catches, with attacking from mid-post and with connecting near the rim. Yakwe is shooting 7% of the team’s shots while he’s on the floor, and has a 43% conversion rate on shots. Sima is shooting 46%. (Both are far better free throw shooters this season.)

Meanwhile, Tariq Owens would like to be a 6’11” jump shooter, but he’s hitting 36% (he can get better. Solid stroke).

Each can be better. And they need to be. Right now, St. John’s gets few shots and even less production out of the frontcourt, leaving the perimeter guards to shoulder a heavy load.

The whole offense.

So one realization from the recent losses is that the guards trust themselves to put up points. They should, somewhat; in descending order, the team’s best offensive ratings (points scored per possession) go to Shamorie Ponds, Marcus LoVett and Federico Mussini.

But in trusting themselves, the main guards (Lovett and Ponds) both tend to look off opportunities to pass the ball inside the arc. They’re not ball stoppers, per se, but they are helping to limit the offensive impact of the team.

That comes with the caveat that the big men struggle to DO something with the ball. It’s hard to say Ponds/ LoVett aren’t making the winning choice to get their own buckets. The team’s turnover rate is solid, after all. But being such a perimeter-oriented team also means that players aren’t giving balance, scoring on the inside, giving more space to Ponds/ LoVett - who defenses can focus on - and players are getting to the line fewer times, culminating in this week’s jump shot fest versus Delaware State.

Taken from Sports Reference; free throw attempt rate is the number of free throws divided by the number of shot attempts:

Date Opponent Free Throw Rate Num. Free Throws Attempted Three-point Attempt Rate
11/11/2016 Bethune-Cookman 0.604 32 0.415
11/14/2016 Binghamton 0.302 19 0.413
11/18/2016 Minnesota 0.304 24 0.342
11/23/2016 Michigan State 0.292 19 0.338
11/24/2016 VCU 0.429 24 0.375
11/25/2016 Old Dominion 0.358 19 0.472
11/29/2016 Delaware State 0.118 8 0.544

Bashir Ahmed could solve this issue, if his offensive drives yielded a bit more. Against Delaware State, St. John’s committed 15 fouls, and three were offensive fouls on Bashir Ahmed, driving into a charge like a bull. He’s physically gifted, but still finding his footing in Division I.

And it’s not just Ahmed. Malik Ellison was touted as a breakout player, but has seemed lost on the floor at times, and has struggled to hit his open shots. Richard Freudenberg was known to be raw and little was expected of him in his first year. But if he can start hitting shots and taking smarter, more instinctive shots, he could be the catalyst for a turnaround in the team’s attack.

Looking ahead

It may have been a tougher schedule than last season, but this was also supposed to be a better team than last season. What has sunk St. John’s was a stilted approach, poor defense (and some poor adjustments to opponent runs) and the offense’s general struggles.

The Johnnies need to find a solution to the issues with the big men, to improve chemistry and effort - and to find on-court leadership on both ends. The level of intensity is one issue. But the execution of the scheme and the scheme itself will also be under scrutiny after such a rough start.

All of this while Marcus LoVett and Shamorie Ponds need to retain their offensive excellence for St. John’s to compete. Can the team find other reliable scorers in Bashir Ahmed? Can the team find a consistent offensive punch from Federico Mussini? Can the team find positive plays from Malik Ellison?

December gives St. John’s three “easy” opponents - Tulane on the road, Cal State-Northridge at home, and LIU-Brooklyn in Brooklyn, which should be a neutral site.

Fordham will be a little tougher, a rivalry game where the players come in with the confidence that they can beat St. John’s.

Penn State is similarly young, but even in Madison Square Garden, will be a tough opponent. The Nittany Lions will be a chance to put the early struggles behind the team. Syracuse is a chance for a surprise win if the shooting is there. But for Syracuse, after losing the last two years, if St. John’s wins we can officially state that the Red Storm have a voodoo curse active against Jim Boeheim’s Orange.

What did you see in the Johnnies’ first month of play, good and bad?