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SI’s Seth Davis on the rebuild at St. John’s and winning basketball

Chris Mullin and the Red Storm’s rebuild are fending off the naysayers

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St. John's vs LIU Wendell Cruz

A week between games means we can spend more time lamenting what was, what can be, and what may never rise again.

And in this week’s Sports Illustrated mailbag, Seth Davis goes in on the struggles with the 5-6 St. John’s Red Storm in response to some Twitter inquiries.

Mullin is only in his second year, so it is not fair to blame him for the team’s struggles....

I saw this team in person for three straight days at the Battle 4 Atlantis. These guys have some talent. The problem is they have no idea how to play winning basketball right now. St. John’s played three good teams that week—Michigan State, VCU and Old Dominion. In each case, they hung tough for a half, maybe 30 minutes. But when winning time arrived, the Johnnies were mentally worn out and overmatched. I expect that pattern will repeat itself during Big East season.

If there is one over-arching thought I have regarding this program’s situation, it is the need for Mullin to do a much better job exploiting the transfer market... I think it is in Mullin’s best interest to identify good players, bring them into his program, teach them and toughen them up while they sit for a year, and then let them build a winning culture.

There’s quite a bit more in the original piece, quickly laying out the narrative around why St. John’s has struggled for a while.

(At least it’s better than becoming a sudden lover with Steve Lavin - like Sam Vecenie did [audio]. Start around 46:30, where you will hear him laud Steve Lavin’s efforts, the same Lavin who struggled with D-II Franklin Pierce and lost to UNC Asheville and also to Fordham when ranked 290 or so in KenPom... but I digress.)

So, ignoring the fact that Chris Mullin has used the transfer market fairly effectively, adding Tariq Owens - who has been the team’s best big man when on the court - and two likely impact players in Justin Simon and Marvin Clark, Jr. - Davis makes a good point.

This team doesn’t know how to play “winning basketball” right now. That’s an intentionally amorphous term, of course; and a lack of “winning basketball” doesn’t always equal losses.

But for this St. John’s team, the talent level isn’t high enough that the players can perform these non-winning basketball feats:

  • coming out “too nonchalant and flat” / without urgency, as players said they did against Delaware State and LIU;
  • having inconsistent energy;
  • being sloppy with the basketball/ giving up turnovers/ taking hasty shots.

It’s only Year Two, and Mullin gets a little more leeway for taking over a team that lost all of its regulars the season before. But the losses are raising eyebrows.

Some of the not-winning-basketball checkmarks may come from a young squad playing what can be a complex style. Have you noted how much more the players need to move in this set up versus some of the previous St. John’s coaches, or even versus some other Big East coaches? It’s understandable that some of the players haven’t found the instinctive groove yet.

It’s a different and more difficult build than most college basketball regime takeovers - with no players in the pipeline, and a rookie head coach who had never experienced the nuances of coaching on the court before.

Still...

It’s hard to develop the needed winning culture under a barrage of losses to poor teams. Some of what ails this squad is a need to defend harder and with more energy. Some of what this team needs is to meld the scoring of the guards with some semblance of an inside game from the likes of Kassoum Yakwe - or Darien Williams, who emerged from a cocoon as the talented JUCO baller he was supposed to be - or Richard Freudenberg, whose taking a while to get his feet wet & build his confidence in the American game.

There are 20 more games in the season for the coaching staff and the players to step up their game. The team is going through growing pains, and while some fans are patient, others are less so. It’s important to show progress to keep people and future recruits on board with #TrustTheProcess.