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St. John’s finally experienced enough for NCAA run?

Two seniors set the tone for the Red Storm in Chris Mullin’s third year.

Wendell Cruz

Since his first season as head coach, one of the many challenges Chris Mullin has faced has been dealing with a young roster. Given his own inexperience as a head coach, having an inexperienced roster wasn’t easy to deal with early on as the Johnnies tried to build the program in the new Big East.

Despite the Red Storm boasting yet another relatively young roster this year, the circumstances are different - St. John’s youth and athleticism will now be paired with experience.

While Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett are both returning players coming off fantastic rookie campaigns, St. John’s real source of experience comes from their two seniors.

Amar Alibegovic enters the 2017-18 season as the longest tenured Johnny, having been a part of the program longer than Mullin himself.

Alibegovic is the final remaining player to have played under former head coach Steve Lavin, and that experience is incredibly important.

Criticisms of Lavin aside, when Alibegovic was a freshman in 2015, St. John’s finished 21-12. More importantly, that was the last time St. John’s made it to the NCAA tournament and that experience is priceless on such a young team.

“I feel old, man,” joked Alibegovic. “All of the coaches have been emphasizing to lead the younger players. I like to be the first one in the gym, last one to leave, just to give some sort of a system for everyone [to follow]. Every single player on our team likes working hard. I think me, Bashir [Ahmed] and Tariq [Owens] especially are emphasizing that and reminding them to stay in the gym, focus on working harder and being better.”

Although it’s hard to gather his impact on the team via his erratic playing time over the years, he’s made dramatic improvements. As a freshman, Alibegovic saw limited minutes behind a talented front-court of Sir’Dominic Pointer and Chris Obekpa. However, since then, he’s been a reliable source of production when called upon.

“Amar has been great,” praised Mullin. “He’s been our most consistent worker and he’s a natural leader because of that. Also, no matter what I’ve asked of him—there’s been nights I’ve asked him to play big minutes, other nights where I didn’t play him [at all]—he always comes back with the same attitude. It’s all about the team. He’s the ultimate teammate.”

Their other senior, Bashir Ahmed, is also being looked upon to be a leader on this team. His versatility fills the team’s holes.

by Wendell Cruz

When the Red Storm need help rebounding, he’s crashing the glass. When the team needs playmaking, he’s capable of handling the ball. When the team needs a bucket, he’s dependable enough to work to generate a shot one-on-one against the toughest of defenders.

Ahmed, who entered his name into the NBA Draft pool before withdrawing, knows improvements need to be made to the 14-19 squad.

“We definitely need to defend and rebound. Last year, we gave up too many points and struggled rebounding. I feel like last year we were a bit small,” said Ahmed. “This year, new guys like Marvin Clark and Justin Simon, they’re pretty physical, big and athletic. I feel like that’s going to help the team in terms of rebounding and defense. We feel pretty good about offense; our main focus is defense and rebounding.”

“We know we can play with anyone in the country on any given night,” Mullin said, “and we can get beat. That’s a good thing; [you] always have your guard up. That’s why you practice and spar with each other. Every time you come out, you know damn well if you don’t put your best effort out you’ll get beat.”

Going back to the benefit of experience, Mullin added, “guys are more confident in themselves and understand what’s being asked of them. There’s no substitution for experience.”