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Three takeaways from St. John’s/ Cal State Northridge game

Movement inconsistent, front court struggles - but clutch free throws seal the game

Wendell Cruz

From the seats during St. John’s 76-70 win over Cal State-Northridge last night...

6’11” center Dylan Johns from Cal State won the opening tip from 6’11” Yankuba Sima and shortly afterwards hit a two foot, left-handed hook shot to give Cal State a 2-0 lead. It looked like a long night for St. John’s who was missing its leader and top scorer, Marcus LoVett, due to an ankle injury. But St. John’s fought on.

The game began as many this year with St. John’s attempting to engage frontcourt players. Sima made a nice pass to Kassoum Yakwe, who missed the shot but, shortly thereafter, Ponds fed him for a layup. A fast break, Shamorie Ponds to Malik Ellison and back to Ponds for a layup at the 17:30 mark of the first half demonstrated that the fast break was alive even without LoVett. St. John’s led 8 to 7 at the 14:34 media break and had not yet scored a three point basket.

Late in the first half the threes did come. Ponds scored the first at the 13:52 mark and Federico Mussini sank three in a span of 52 seconds at around the five minute mark. All three shots were “all net”.

As the game progressed Ellison started to shows signs of his late season play last year, driving to the hoop for layups and going to the free throw line.

Ponds led the way with 25 points. He hit two clutch free throws at the end of the game when the Johnnies led by two with ten seconds to go, taking an unusual length of time when shooting. It was a moment of maturity for the leading scorer of the evening.

For the “Fans in the Stands” one of the games’ highlights was during a thirty second sequence in the second half when Tariq Owens took an offensive rebound and was fouled. He made one of two foul shots then stole the ball as Cal State passed the ball up the court. A give and go with Malik Ellison led to a dunk by Owens. Shortly thereafter he took a charge resulting in a Cal State turnover. The sequence summarizes the all around effort of Owens during the night.

By playing time and school year, St. John’s has the second youngest team in all division one basketball. It showed in a combination of brilliant play by several contributors yet sloppy cross court passes, missed layups, and dunks attempted when a layup would suffice.

Takeaway Number One: As the game wears on the movement stagnates.

Once again St. John’s began the game with movement, a weave outside with passes inside to the front court when an opening arose. This led to baskets by Yakwe and Sima, even before a three pointer was attempted. But as the game wore on the movement lessened and the guards began playing more one-on-one basketball.

There were some nice backdoor cut plays in the second half with passes by Mussini and Ponds but the one on one play became increasingly frequent. Ponds was effective knifing through the Cal State defense on drives to the hoop.

One fan commented that Federico Mussini is the only St. John’s player that moves without the ball.

Takeaway Number Two: “We could Sure Use Christian Jones This Year”

A season ticket holder of several years commented, “We could sure use Christian Jones this year”. The key to increased success for the 2016-17 Johnnies seems to rest with engaging the front court. Often front court players were setting screens 12 to 15 feet from the basket. However, Cal State defenders remained in the paint having little to fear from the St. John’s front court.

St. John’s was able to get the ball into the high post throughout the game but the person receiving the pass rarely shot or attacked the basket. On occasion a pass was made to a teammate under the basket for a short turnaround or layup but more often the ball simply was returned to a guard to reset the offense.

Christian Jones could hit a jumper from 12 to 15 feet from the basket last year. Yakwe and Sima are hitting their free throws at a higher rate this season. They, as well as Owens, make 15 foot jumpers in warmups. If these shots can be made in warmups why not during the game? The dynamic of the offense changes significantly when there is a threat from the top of the key. Who will develop the shot from the key this year?

Takeaway Number Three: Defensive Improvement

Cal State is ranked #223 in the Ken Pomeroy rankings. Nevertheless, this was a defensive test for the Johnnies as the Cal State game plan was clear: force the ball inside the arc, draw fouls, and attack the offensive glass. With a talented front court of players 6’8’’ to 6’11”, the defensive task was formidable.

The beginning of the game found St. John’s defenders standing their ground, attempting to take charges but rarely getting the calls. As the game progressed Cal State kept attacking and, though not taking charges, St. John’s front court did challenge shots and recorded eight blocks. Several Cal State points were scored on steals leading to break away layups, hardly plays on which the defense could be faulted.

St. John’s came out of the first time out with a zone defense which seemed to disrupt the Cal State offense and led to a turnover. The zone appears to be a useful tool to force opponents to change their game plan and to slow down any momentum that is building.

It is also noted that St. John’s got back on defense after baskets made, one of the few flaws noted in the Tulane win.

Equally important to the defensive efforts was that St. John’s won the rebounding battle 37 to 32, with Bahir Ahmed leading the way with eight.

So it is Fordham on December 8th and possibly another game without LoVett. Fordham handily beat the Johnnies a year ago and to date has a 5 and 4 record. Cutting down on careless mistakes and more consistent ball movement will be keys to continued improvement.

As the Big East season emerges finding someone to take the Christian Jones role of being effective from the post could make a significant impact on the Johnnies success this season.