For stretches last season, St. John’s was easily one of the best bad teams in the country, and that’s actually not a contradicting statement.
They hung with the best, lost close games to good teams, and yet folded to some of the worst. It was a year of head-scratching inconsistency as Chris Mullin’s second-year team struggled to find its identity. To understand just how bad they often were, you have to understand how good they proved they could be at times.
When they were good, they were very good
Atop the list of impressive outings for the Red Storm was the utter annihilation of longtime rival Syracuse—a 93-60 rout at the Carrier Dome.
They handed Syracuse their biggest loss at home in history, eclipsing a 24-point loss to Seton Hall in 1998, as 18,364 fans barraged the Orange in boos. Despite Syracuse’s shaky season, the loss was one of just four suffered at home by the Orange, where they posted a 17-4 record at the Carrier Dome. Even during a down year, a win at the Carrier Dome is no easy feat.
The Red Storm would then steal a 76-73 win over then-ranked Butler (13th at the time). The Bulldogs would go on to make a run to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament as a four seed.
And the Johnnies also delivered a 78-70 win over Seton Hall, an NCAA tournament team that finished 21-12 overall.
Yet, despite wins of this magnitude, the Red Storm could never build off such momentum.
“That was our biggest issue last year: being inconsistent,” said Amar Alibegovic, the senior forward. “We could literally compete with anyone on the higher level. Consistency has been a big key for us and having another year to build this culture and gain experience, especially for our top scorers.”
“We have better chemistry and if we play defense and rebound,” Alibegovic continued, “we’re going to be alright.”
Even against the top team in the league, the Red Storm showed some flashes.
Fans remember St. John’s lost to Villanova in all three of their meetings. The first two losses were rather telling, as the Red storm lost by 13 points each game. Their first meeting saw Villanova clinging on to a 6-point lead at the half, as St. John’s wings contained Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins to 5-for-23 shooting for the game. In their second loss, St. John’s trailed by 18 at the half, before coming just short of pulling off a brilliant comeback late in the second half.
Both of the first two meetings, despite losses, proved that St John’s young team could—at the very least—hang with the best team in the country.
When they were bad, the wheels fell off
However, by the time the Big East tournament came around, the Red Storm suffered its most gruesome loss of the year to that very same team. The Wildcats beat St. John’s 108-67 at the Garden, and no further words are needed.
Remember how they beat Butler by three? The same team that finished second in the Big East with an overall 25-9 record? Well, St. John’s encore performance against the Bulldogs was a 110-86 loss.
Perhaps the major blowout losses to Villanova and Butler are unfair examples, given how great both teams were last year. Well, the bad losses did not discriminate, coming against some of their worst competition as well.
Old Dominion, a physical squad from the CAA, shot 30% from the floor but managed to hand St. John’s a loss in the process. The Red Storm lost the battle of the boards on the offensive glass 19-8, leading to 13(!!!!) more field goal attempts for the Old Dominion Monarchs.
“Kassoum Yakwe and Tariq Owens, two of the best shot blockers in the country, at times were overmatched physically,” said coach Mullin during Big East Media Day. “With another year of experience and another summer in the weight room, I think they can hold their ground a little better.”
“That’s a big focus, more so for Kassoum; [his play] went down a little bit last year. We look for him to rebound,” joked Mullin, “…and rebound better.”
Rebounding was an issue all year for the Johnnies, in addition to their defense. Although they’ve brought in Marvin Clark, a strong, thick-bodied forward, to help regain control of the paint, they’ll need Yakwe to return to form or better.
“We’ve been pushing [Yakwe] every day in practice and giving him more confidence,” added Ahmed. “He’s really improved over the summer.”
Other losses include a mistake-laden defeat to LIU with Lovett out of action. In that game down the stretch, Yakwe dropped a pass below the rim, St. John’s pick-and-roll defense got exposed for LIU’s go-ahead bucket and Malik Elison turned the ball over coming out of a timeout. After blowing the lead, St. John’s would force LIU to turn the ball over on an inbound, before Ponds came up short on a relatively good look from about 15-feet at the buzzer.
St. John’s also suffered losses to Penn State and Delaware State, in which they allowed the opposing team to shoot 50% and 58% respectively. Delaware State won only one non-conference game against a Division I team - that win over St. John’s.
The Red Storm even lost 83-55 to Georgetown, a team that finished below the Red Storm in the Big East.
What was learned from the losses
“We just learned to take every game seriously and to know that each and every possession is very crucial because that can be a turning point,” said Lovett. “We’re going to be much more cautious of that. I have great confidence, just off of practice and seeing how guys have been working. We have a lot of athleticism and to me it’s kind of scary.”
“[We learned] to not doubt any team [and] to not go into a game thinking we’re better than a team,” Bashir Ahmed commented on the lessons the team learned. “We have to go in with the same mindset, whether we’re playing Duke or DePaul—just go in there with the same gameplan and be hungry.”
Their struggles often originated from their over-dependence on Lovett and Shamorie Ponds. And while Mullin has stated how much more he’ll be demanding defensively from his star-studded backcourt, he’s also looking forward to relying on them less offensively.
“Offensively, we’re going to be able to be a little more balanced,” Mullin said with confidence. “I’m really going to ask Marcus and Shamorie, at times, to become catch-and-shoot guys, play off the ball, be great cutters and screeners and be a threat without the ball.
“They’re big time threats with the ball, so we’re always going to go back to that. But to balance out and keep the defense guessing, we’re going to ask them to play off the ball and be as dangerous as they are with the ball.”
Chris Mullin and his staff have confidence in their plan. For the Red Storm to step up to postseason contention, those bad losses cannot happen, and the team has to play with a high-level of poise and consistency.