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St. John’s season preview: are the NCAAs a plausible goal?

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Chris Mullin’s team should have offensive and defensive improvements, but how much will they rise in the Big East?

Wendell Cruz

We slide into a hopeful 2017-18, year three of Chris Mullin’s tenure and one that, despite the records of the last two years, holds a lot of promise.

Why? After all, last season featured a non-conference filled with struggles, a 14-19 overall record, and the team lost four contributors in Richard Freudenberg, Darien Williams, Federico Mussini and Malik Ellison.

A look at the outlook for the team, and a reflection on all of those predictions we have linked to and written about in the past two months... as the season finally kicks off with the game against New Orleans, tonight.

There is major upside. But as noted in the exhibition loss against Rutgers, this team has a way to go, despite the talent, and needs to keep up a killer instinct all game long.

Marcus LoVett
Wendell Cruz

Newcomers

This season, though, features potent additions in Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II, transfers from Arizona and Michigan State, respectively.

Simon should provide some athleticism, better defense, and passing for the Johnnies, freeing up Marcus LoVett and Shamorie Ponds for more dynamic scoring.

Marvin Clark should provide some heft inside and a look at how the coaching staff wants the team to look - a squad that can score outside and in, with threats that space the floor all over.

Those two players will have some rust to work out; neither played major minutes at their first schools, and both have sat out for a season. But both will be major contributors, creating a team with at least six to seven high-impact players.

Bryan Trimble Jr. also joins the squad, a thickly-built freshman with a shooting stroke and some defensive ability.

On offense

While the team is not particularly concerned with scoring, with crafty playmakers all over the floor, scoring should be a concern. Last season, some of the team’s slow starts - especially against teams with size - came as jump shots were not falling. The outside jumper is a great tool - but even the best players connect on 40% of those shots (typically. Marquette’s Markus Howard is a mutant).

The Johnnies had little inside scoring, and earned few “easy” shots at the rim. In Big East play, the Johnnies shot 48% inside the arc (9th in the Big East) and 33% outside the arc (8th in the league).

This year, expect to see a few more touches inside for Kassoum Yakwe, Tariq Owens and Marvin Clark, chances for them to score loudly at the rim. Expect the team to push the ball hard in transition to get chances to those three fast and agile forwards, who can all finish.

Owens, in particular, has great energy attacking the offensive hoop in transition. In limited minutes, Amar Alibegovic can be a transition scoring option as well.

Will it make the offense better, more reliable? Possibly. There will be growing pains.

Bashir Ahmed’s ability to take better shots will be key; at times, he tried to create off the dribble, but stopped the ball movement. Ball movement may be key, but it is not everything; a good team has players who can attack off the dribble and pull a squad out of an offensive funk.

But for Ahmed/ Ponds/ LoVett, knowing when to do so and when to stay within the system of moving, replacing, passing will be a major key to the offense’s consistency.

On defense

Wendell Cruz

The real question for this team seems to be the defense, which, outside of an excellent rate of forcing turnovers (22% of opponent possessions in conference play last season) was poor.

Consider: St. John’s was decent at getting opponents from shooting threes (34% of opponent shots, 3rd best in Big East), but:

  • those same opponents went to the line at the highest rate in the league - a 43% Free Throw Attempted to Field Goal Attempted rate.
  • And those opponents shot 54% inside the arc, which was the third-worst mark in the Big East.
  • And those opponents grabbed nearly 35% of their missed shots, worst rate allowed in the Big East.

Shot blocking is nice, but when the shots weren’t blocked, opponents found the solution to getting to the rim time and time again.

This year’s answer to the problem will be, first, better perimeter defense. Justin Simon has long arms and a defensive reputation; at 6’4”, he should be able to cover a number of different players.

But Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett bear a lot of responsibility. As the two guards likely to be on the floor 75% or more of the time, they need to make ballhandling and dribble penetration difficult for the players they face, every game out.

Perimeter defense should lighten the load on the rest of the team, and minimize the times where the slim but athletic Kassoum Yakwe and Tariq Owens are exposed as the last line of defense.

Bashir Ahmed, given his size and strength, will have chances to shine on defense as well. With a strong effort, he could turn heads as an individual defender.

Bryan Trimble, Jr. has defensive desire, and could also be a surprise piece of the defensive puzzle; a willingness to defend will find him minutes.

The defense could take a leap, though that seems unlikely.

A great defense will vault this team into the NCAAs.

But more likely is a competent defense that struggles against active big men at times, forcing Chris Mullin and the coaching staff to experiment with different ideas (zones, double teams) to keep games close.

Depth

Foul trouble will bite this team in the backside at times. Energetic shot-blocking forwards invite fouls - some justified, some questionable.

But the ruling of the official almost always stands, and foul trouble can easily leave this team with unwilling defenders in the paint, trying hard to avoid contact - and allowing layups.

And there are only nine available scholarship players.

Three of those players - Alibegovic, Owens and Yakwe - foul more than five times per game when their foul rates are pro-rated to a hypothetical 40 minutes.

They can improve, but given their energy and desire to swat shots, fouls are going to happen. Marvin Clark, in the preseason game against Rutgers, also was not immune to the foul bug.

Foul trouble, as we said, will bite.

Those fouls will dampen a killer instinct on defense, letting middling opponents beck, granting them enough confidence to go on what will seem like an inexplicable run.

The guards, who are not prone to fouling, have excellent steal rates. For Ponds, 3.3% of opponent possessions end up in a steal while he’s on the floor; Lovett’s rate is 2.3) have enough stamina to play pressure defense, and at some point, we should expect to see a bit more pressing to help bleed some time off of the clock on defense.

Outlook/ predictions

We are probably wrong - it’s hard to predict the later fortunes of a team, since they depend on conference strength, team player health, and team cohesion.

We will make our predictions anyway, noting that, despite the serious questions on defense and with depth/ foul trouble, this is a team that can be explosive on every opponent they face.

no game should be thought of as a foregone conclusion. That’s true for any team, but this Red Storm team had serious lapses last year that cost them winnable games against LIU-Brooklyn and Delaware State; in those games (and others), low-level teams looked like they could compete with the best of the Big East.

And better Big East teams teed off on the Johnnies for big runs.

Until this team can cut opponent runs down, and until this team can hold an offensively-competent opponent down on defense, our crystal ball will assume some of the same issues will rear themselves this season.

  1. St. John’s will go 10-3 in the non-conference; they will lose one game because of foul trouble in some form, likely in December; they will lose at least one game in the Advocare Tournament. They will blow out one of Nebraska, Arizona State or Saint Joseph’s. And the Johnnies will not lose to New Orleans, Central Connecticut or Sacred Heart, our picks for the worst possible Out of Conference loss possibilities.
  2. St. John’s will go 8-10 in the Big East, which will be progress...
  3. But the heart of the league is still thick with tough challenges. St. John’s will win at Butler for the first time in four years, but will continue to struggle with Xavier. Georgetown and St. John’s will split games.
  4. At 18-13, the Red Storm are on the bubble and have improved in year three... but settle for the NIT. Unless they get a real shot at a vulnerable top-five team like, say, Providence, in the Big East Tournament.

Ok, how off do you think we are?