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St. John’s non-conference in review: the storylines and numbers

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Shamorie Ponds has emerged, but some tough losses leave the Red Storm under .500.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

St. John’s enters Big East play after a rousing victory over the Syracuse Orange, some competitive games against the likes of Michigan State and Virginia Commonwealth... and some foul losses that had certain naysayers nationally and within the fanbase up in arms.

It’s a good thing there are now widely-available shoulder shrug emojis - could any symbol answer the dogged question of “what the $%^&* is this St. John’s team about?!” this season?

At the heart of the Red Storm’s 6-7 record are the facts about a coaching staff working to keep a steady effort coming from the players; a team that, by minutes played, is one of the youngest in the country; and a roster that lacks interior heft.

Yes, there are 18 Big East games to play, plus at least one Big East Tournament matchup. The high hopes of many seem to have been dashed, and reaching the NIT after a tough start will take an explosive effort from the team, even if simply playing every team closely will be progress from last year’s parade of demoralizing victories.

But there are reasons for optimism, and perhaps there are reasons to believe the team at the end of the season will be better than the team that has sputtered through non-conference play, despite strong performances - led by three of the four newcomers to Chris Mullin’s rebuilding effort. There are solid indicators beneath the surface, but the team has to put everything together, along with a high-level effort, to make a surge in conference play.

We’ll start looking at some numbers, then back at the negatives, check in on the positives and deliver three truths about the team.

Some useful numbers

(All taken from sports-reference.com)

Big East wins, losses, and the offensive and defensive ratings, which are in points score/ allowed per 100 possessions - adjusted for strength of schedule.

12/28 Big East standings, Offensive/ Defensive ratings

School W L Pts Opp. Pts Adjusted Off. Rating Adjusted Def. Rating
School W L Pts Opp. Pts Adjusted Off. Rating Adjusted Def. Rating
Villanova 12 0 80.8 61.2 123.1 86.0
Butler 11 1 78.4 63.9 118.0 88.9
Creighton 12 0 89.8 71.8 119.5 93.9
Xavier 10 2 75.8 65.3 111.9 86.4
Marquette 9 3 85.9 71.1 116.4 94.6
Georgetown 8 4 79.3 70.0 109.9 91.6
Providence 10 3 71.2 60.5 104.1 87.6
Seton Hall 10 2 77.1 67.9 108.4 93.4
St. John's 6 7 78.8 71.5 106.6 97.0
DePaul 7 6 73.0 70.2 102.4 99.4
A look at St. John’s performance by the numbers - compared to the rest of the Big East. Norman Rose

A look at some individual numbers.

Points per game.

Points per game - St. John’s non-conference play
Norman Rose

Usage percentage is the ratio of the team’s possessions a player uses on the court - by taking shots or giving up turnovers, with the effects of free throws estimated.

Usage percentage - St. John’s non-conference play
Norman Rose

Assist percentage is the percentage of made shots that a player hands out assists for while on the court. Sharing is caring, here, and three players have better than 20% assist rates.

Assist percentage, St. John’s non-conference play
Norman Rose

Three negatives

Those losses... St. John's lost to a Delaware State squad that is currently 3-11; the other two wins are against teams below the Division I level, and Delaware State has been blown out by the likes of Binghamton, Maryland-Baltimore County, Delaware and North Texas. St. John's also lost to LIU-Brooklyn, a squad that took home losses from Niagara and Dartmouth.

In total, St. John's has seven losses. And at 6-7, the road to a .500 record this season looks unlikely unless a lot of things change on the court - better defense, more diverse scoring.

For those looking for positives, however, Malik Ellison and Richard Freudenberg have made more on-court impact, pressed into more time with injuries. Freudenberg has started making contributions, while Ellison has doubled his points-per-game average in the last six games (as well as his assists/ game average).

Below, a look at Freudenberg and Ellison’s cumulative point production as it has started to rise more sharply in recent games.

Richard Freudenberg comes alive?
Norman Rose
The rise of Malik Ellison, in total points scored, tracked by game
Norman Rose

Consistency. Despite decent peripherals - passable defense and bursts of strong offense - the Red Storm have lacked consistency.

Some of that comes from spotty interior play. The Johnnies struggle to get scoring from their forwards. And on defense, Tariq Owens and Kassoum Yakwe are very good shot blockers, but lack the heft to defend bigger opponents in the paint.

So when opponents can effectively attack the interior, like Delaware State did, the Red Storm have few answers to stop the onslaught.

Without effective interior play, opponents can concentrate on defending the perimeter scorers and are better able to maintain their defensive shape.

And when the team cannot generate offense inside the arc, the dependence on the three-pointer, while not a negative by any means, can cause defensive imbalances - with perimeter players trying to locate their matchups on defensive fast breaks.

With Yankuba Sima gone (transferred to Oklahoma State) and Amar Alibegovic injured, St. John's will need to cobble together creative answers - denying the ball inside, quicker defensive rotations, pressure higher up the court.

The table below is not conclusive, but note where they team’s worst defensive performance happened - against a weak opponent that slowed the pace and successfully attacked the interior.

The interior weak spot on defense?

G Opp Defensive Rating (per 100 possessions) Opponent 2p Shooting % Pace
G Opp Defensive Rating (per 100 possessions) Opponent 2p Shooting % Pace
1 Bethune-Cookman 71.6 0.417 73.6
2 Binghamton 79.2 0.400 77.1
3 Minnesota 110.8 0.444 82.6
4 Michigan State 98.6 0.471 74.2
5 VCU 102.7 0.400 73.1
6 Old Dominion 86.3 0.320 72.9
7 Delaware State 116.2 0.600 67.5
8 Tulane 105.6 0.459 71.3
9 Cal State Northridge 92.1 0.548 76.4
10 Fordham 88.6 0.333 69.9
11 LIU-Brooklyn 97.4 0.440 75.7
12 Penn State 109.5 0.463 84.2
13 Syracuse 80.0 0.419 75.5
Defensive efficiency vs. opponent two-point shooting % Norman Rose

The youth, perhaps, has shown itself in the inconsistency. The players have said that they have come out flat in some games, notably against Penn State and Delaware State, that the team should have won.

But perhaps there are other youth-related issues, such as knowing intuitively how to react quickly to opponents' runs, that are stymieing progress.

Or perhaps the staff is still finding the right ways of putting the players in position to be successful - all while those players are learning how to play successful basketball.

Three positives

Bombs away! St. John's has five players shooting over 40% from beyond the arc. The Red Storm are torching the nets and doing it with some consistency:

St. Bombs University: the hot three-point shooting

Player Games Mins. Played 3 point % 3P Atts., this season Points/ G
Player Games Mins. Played 3 point % 3P Atts., this season Points/ G
Shamorie Ponds 13 33.1 0.427 96 17.2
Marcus LoVett 10 33.4 0.412 51 16.7
Bashir Ahmed 13 24.0 0.407 54 12.5
Federico Mussini 12 20.8 0.483 58 9.7
Malik Ellison 13 22.2 0.457 35 7.5
Richard Freudenberg 13 11.8 0.192 26 1.8
Amar Alibegovic 9 9.4 0.182 11 1.7
St. John’s three-point shooting, non-conference play Norman Rose

It's been a long time since St. John's had a team with this much shooting... if it has ever happened.

Shamorie Ponds. While Marcus LoVett has also been an excellent freshman, Shamorie Ponds has shined, earning his two Big East Player of the Week awards with consistency and adaptability.

Ponds, a 6'1" freshman, has been a low-turnover, high usage guard who has scored in double figures in all but his first game. Ponds has gone to the free throw line in every single contest except for his first game. He's tallied four steals twice. He's taken on added minutes and the point guard role when Marcus LoVett sat out with an injury in early December (two wins and a loss).

Solid free throw percentage. As a team, St. John's was one of the ten worst squads in terms of cumulative free throw percentage at 64% from the line.

This year's team is shooting 71%.

Malik Ellison has dipped from 65% to 54% from the line, but the newcomers have all had a softer touch at the line, and Kassoum Yakwe has improved to a near-70% FT shooter.

What do we know about the team going forward?

They're much better defensively when forcing turnovers. Of course, that’s not going to be easy in a very competitive and talented Big East conference. Can St. John’s grit out defensive wins even when not forcing turnovers?

They're much worse defensively when opponents get shots at the rim. See above table. The Red Storm will begin with a true test against Andrew Chrabascz of Butler and Kelan Martin, a pair of formidable interior foes.

Emergence is key. St. John’s can play competitive basketball, but the team can also play some mediocre stretches, especially on defense.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

It’s up to every player on the roster to step up. LoVett and Ponds have been excellent, but in the Big East, opponents will find ways to slow them down, if not stop their contributions.

What then?

The team badly needs Richard Freudenberg to become an option, with his ability to (so far) rebound decently and his upside as a player who can score in different ways. Malik Ellison will need to continue his ascent. Tariq Owens will need to stay on the floor and battle in the paint. Federico Mussini will need to add points when he returns from his infection.

And Kassoum Yakwe, he of the great upside and hard hustling play, needs to continue to contribute in ways large and small.

In the coming months, he and Freudenberg are x-factors; if they can blossom into solid players, the Red Storm are a far more balanced team and harder to defend - and will be able to score enough to remain competitive in every contest.

But against Syracuse, St. John’s shows what can happen when they lock in long enough for a hot shooting streak to come; when the Red Storm are hitting, they can open up a lead in a hurry.

Can they find those openings? Can they hold the lead? Can they play like their best against Big East foes, while leaving their worst tendencies in 2016?