As part of the offseason, we like to look back and analytically noodle on what came before, think about what's coming in the future, and start setting the framework for what we think about as "success" next season.
For St. John's, the team that finished 8-24 in Chris Mullin's rookie year, things can only go up. The incoming recruiting class is strong. Fans generally gave Mullin a pass, since he was returning about 8% of the previous year's team, one of the lowest figures in the last six years.
But things NEED to go up, for the fans have been impressively patient through some thunderous beatings. Mullin was clearly not comfortable with being so uncompetitive, but discomfort alone won't make the Johnnies a better squad on the court. And the players know that expectations of them are going up over this offseason, that the team will have enough depth to leave an underperforming player on the bench.
With all that in mind, we have been thinking about how to attack a breakdown of last season, and we'll come at it in different ways. It's difficult to break into components a year that could basically be boiled down to "the team didn't do enough correctly to win games" in aggregate, a combination of poor offense, young/ inexperienced players, self-inflicted on-court wounds, and the newness of the team and coach.
So, while fans had many, many comments about the team, we're going to try to distill our views into short lists.
Three things we learned about St. John's last year
The team was young and at times, fully overwhelmed by a lack of depth
At point guard, there was Federico Mussini, who wasn't quite ready to be a 35-minute a game point guard. From the first game, a lack of quickness and his decision-making with the ball put the Johnnies in difficult situations.
The forwards Yankuba Sima and Kassoum Yakwe made spectacular plays, but struggled to defend on their own inside.
Malik Ellison has skills, but finishing skills are still coming along.
Durand Johnson and Ron Mvouika made some nice plays, but a combination of thirst and lack of athleticism caused struggles for the pair.
And yet, the team had competitive stretches, nearly defeating Seton Hall, hanging with Marquette twice, giving Villanova a run, defeating Syracuse.
It wasn't all bad. Mussini's first couple of months showed a fearless range. Sima has athleticism at the center position and had solid games early in league play. On a good day, Yakwe can both rebound and get to the rim to score or draw fouls. Malik Ellison might have missed quite a few shots, but he got shots off that no one else on the squad could.
On offense, a team that played capable man to man defense generally stifled the Johnnies.
In truth, a lot of things stifled the Red Storm offense, including the aforementioned lack of depth at point guard. And this was a team that scored 0.7 points per possession against Niagara, only cracked 1 point per possession 10 times in 32 games, and was the 300th best offense in the country of 351 Division 1 teams, by tempo-free numbers.
But against a zone, the team had some good moments, torching Syracuse, strafing Marquette twice (seriously, do something different, Golden Eagles). Meanwhile, the team couldn't get the outside shots falling against heavily man-oriented teams like Vanderbilt (they shot 2/16 from outside the arc) or Providence (2/13) or Butler, where the shot 7/27 inside the arc on the way to a 33-point loss. Or consider that Villanova forced turnovers on 27% and 28% of St. John's possessions in their two matchups.
Having a trio of newcomers in Marcus LoVett, Shamorie Ponds and Bashir Ahmed who can get good shots off under pressure will help the offense. But better physical skills, better ballhandling and better preparation are needed for the entire team to excel on offense.
Fundamental Improvements needed
Having a young team also means having a team that might not have the strongest grasp on some basics. Certainly, some of last year's struggles came from pure talent, others came from having a rookie coach and a rookie staff figuring out there way, some struggles were likely from a lack of familiarity of the team/ lack of a passed-down "this is how we do things/ this is what it's supposed to look like when we play well" culture.
But there are some fundamental skills missing - and fundamental strength. Of course, the sophomore leap that many players enjoy comes from the offseason and year of work in a college program, the time where a player can take a breath and know how to address the bigger holes in their game.
Like those free throws. St. John's was ranked 342 of 351 teams in free throw shooting at 63%. The correctable, and it's terrible. The player who earned the most free throws was Kassoum Yakwe, who shot 52% on his 102 attempts. Malik Ellison, the most likely to get to the line, shot 65%, which looks great in contrast, but is pretty poor for a guard who purportedly has an outside shot. And Yankuba Sima shot 38%. In his worst season, Shaquille O'Neal, the notoriously bad free throw shooter, shot 46%.
So, you know, fundamental improvements needed.