So many questions for the St. John’s Red Storm that the fans are itching to have answers to.
So, in the aftermath of the St. John’s 84-52 victory, what did fans learn about Chris Mullin’s team last night against American International, a team that played hard but clearly did not have the athletic skills of the Johnnies?
So many of the questions about this year’s team - and so much of the hope that the red Storm can move up in the standings to possibly the top half - rest on the effectiveness and consistency of the defense.
Would fans see a forty minute effort by every Johnnie to challenge every pass, every shot by an opponent? Will we see a defense that does more than make steals and block shots?
There were encouraging signs last night.
At the 17:55 mark of the first half St. John’s led 10-0 as a result of some tough defense, particularly by Justin Simon, and some excellent ball movement leading to open threes by Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett.
By the 12:15 mark the score was 23-8, with a continued effort on defense and crisp ball movement.
Freshman Bryan Trimble overcame a jittery start - being beaten for a layup and an errant pass leading to an American International fast break - by providing intense face to face defense and hitting two threes.
Marvin Clark was a stalwart rebounder and could be heard directing team members as to appropriate defensive positions. He was observed as being nimble on fast break opportunities throughout the game.
Fellow transfer Justin Simon scored six points on in control drives to the basket. More importantly, having seven assists and no turnovers, Simon also took control of the offense. He slowed things down when it was a bit out-of-control yet led an effective fast break as the Johnnies moved the ball quickly down the court on every opportunity. There was a clear flow to almost all possessions.
Late in the first half both Tariq Owens and Amar Alibegovic took turns setting up, back to the basket, in the low post. Teammates fed them and, although each missed some short turnaround shots, fans saw the potential of this new low post game.
Near the end of the first half a fan called out, “Marcus, take over”. This was not necessary - all of the Johnnies were sharing the ball on offense unselfishly resulting in a 49-32 halftime lead.
The question remained – would the defensive intensity continue? The Red Storm had held the Aggies to 39 percent shooting from the field and 9 turnovers. In contrast St. John’s shot 55% with 7 turnovers.
During the second half, even with a big lead the defensive intensity continued, often opening up easy layup or open shot opportunities.
During one minute and a half period in the second half Tariq Owens, on consecutive possessions:
1. Applied double team pressure resulting in an Aggie turnover.
2. On the next possession applied double team pressure leading to a second Aggie turnover then made a tip in on the resultant St, John’s possession.
3. Blocked an Aggie shot and raced down the court to position himself for an open 15 foot jumper which he drained.
It was quite a sequence for a continuing improvement of Owens.
Shortly after Owens’ outstanding sequence of plays, Shamorie Ponds drove the right side, stopped on a dime and let go an impossible to defend fall away jumper that hit nothing but net.
So the game continued throughout the second half.
Three Takeaways from the Game
Defensive intensity Rules
The final score, in many ways, says it all. A 84 to 52 Johnnies victory meant that American International scored 20 points in the second half … 20 points in 20 minutes. There was increased, not decreased, intensity on defense. Near the end of the game the scoreboard reported seven blocks and ten steals by St. John’s players as well as 21 Aggie turnovers for the game.
It is important to note that ball handling did not appear to be a strong point of the Aggies although they did run some nice sets with successful screens, particularly in the first half.
Foul Trouble Could Be Problematic
With nine scholarship players eligible, the Johnnies cannot afford to have players get into early foul trouble. Yet against a Division II opponent, Amar Alibegovic and Bashir Ahmed fouled out by the middle of the second half while Tariq Owens and Justin Simon were in foul trouble with three fouls each in the first half. Ahmed had three offensive fouls, primarily in attempting to gain position under the basket.
Facing more skillful competition as the year goes on, the Johnnies need to work on avoiding needless fouls without letting go of the defensive intensity so needed for success this year. Too many careless fouls could result in opponents exposing the lack of depth on this year’s squad.
Number Three: There is Hope
Simon, Clark and Trimble all appear to be positive additions, particularly on defense and as rebounders.
Owens demonstrated improved offensive skills and Alibegovic continued his unselfish play, setting screens, rebounding and, on occasion, hitting some quick turnarounds near the basket. Ahmed, despite his foul trouble, scored eleven points. Fans look forward to the contributions Kassoum Yakwe can make - he sat out with an ankle injury.
Lastly, Ponds and LoVett continue to be outstanding on offense with more intensity and purpose on defense. The team as a whole worked together well as evidenced by the 17 assists recorded for the game.
Overall a good start but significantly greater challenges await, starting with Rutgers on the road on Sunday to finish exhibition play.