The Red Storm have come out of the gate with not just a shining record, but the kind of excitement that may revive interest in the program after two years of lackluster November records (4-2 in 2015, 2-5 in 2016).
St. John’s is 6-1, and while the opponents this season are less impressive than foes faced in Chris Mullin’s first two years as head coach, the Johnnies have been dominant for stretches in each game, defensively competitive; despite a few glaring flaws, the team looks far improved.
A look at three aspects of the season that have gone better than expected, and three causes for concern.
What has gone well
Marvin Clark II and Justin Simon worth the hype: Heading into the season, the two transfers from high-level programs had St. John’s fans excited, and they have lived up to the expectations.
Head Coach Chris Mullin said that “physically, we just didn’t have guys like that on our roster,” after the preseason exhibition against American International.
Simon, a 6’5” point guard has taken pressure off Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett. In the opening seven games, Simon is averaging nine points, eight rebounds and over six assists.
Clark II, limited some by foul trouble, has averaged over eight points on 51% shooting, including a blistering 58% from behind the arc, while providing some veteran leadership.
Marvin Clark II: “[Saturday] on our day off all we talked about was moving on and making sure we leave Orlando 6-1." Had his best game as a Johnny with 11 points and 7 rebounds. #sjubb— Zach Braziller (@NYPost_Brazille) November 26, 2017
Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett: The star guards picked up from last year’s performances, handling the additional pressures of defending better and defer to others.
In the preseason, Mullin said that Ponds and LoVett needed to get involved on the glass and spread the ball around more efficiently on offense.
In response, Ponds is averaging close to seven rebounds per game and five assists per game, while leading the team with over 18 points per game. Marcus LoVett is second on the team with just under 15 points per game, and has been a nuisance on defense.
Improvements on Defense: St. John’s is currently only giving up 60 points per game, and is a top-40 defense on a per-possession basis.
LoVett, Ponds, and Simon have all been extremely active in opposing team’s passing lanes making it difficult for opponents to establish rhythm in half-court sets.
The team’s improvement in defense has also been its best source of offense. Most notably in the game against Nebraska in the Gavitt Tip-Off games, when the Johnnies get out in transition, they are extremely dangerous. Tariq Owens has already amassed 23 blocks through seven games. Kassoum Yakwe has shown promising signs reminiscent of his freshman season where he was named to the All-Big East Freshmen team.
What needs improvement
Zone Offense: St. John’s beat UCF on Sunday, but it was far from pretty. With the final score of 46-43, St. John’s largely struggled with the Knight’s 2-3 zone; and the offense struggled when Missouri went to a zone in the previous game.
Rebounding: Despite significant improvements, there is still a lot of work to be done in the rebounding department for St. John’s.
Their rebounding differential is -4 through seven games, however, they outrebounded a UCF team with Tacko Fall, 44-43. A big struggle in the rebounding has been foul trouble of the big men. Marvin Clark II has already fouled out twice, and Tariq Owens, once. When those two get into foul trouble the frontcourt really thins out.
Three-Point Shooting: This ties in with the struggles against the zone defense.
This season, the team’s numbers haven’t been anything to worry about, but with the quality of shooters that this team has, it can be argued they should be better. The team is shooting 34%, only 2% lower than last year’s season average of 36%, but the individual stats tell a different story.
Ponds is only shooting 20%, Ahmed is at 32%, and freshman sharpshooter Bryan Trimble Jr. is only shooting 28%. Individual improvements in three point shooting will go a long way for this team.
Excitement aside, it’s hard to know how good this St. John’s team really is.
First, the competition has included entirely unranked teams, squads with obvious flaws. Given the lack of marquee names on the schedule (Arizona State, now ranked, notwithstanding), the Big East (and Duke) will really tell the tale of how far this team has come.
Second, it is early. The team is still refining its concepts - the roles of the three guards, the role of the bench forwards, how to address zone defense, how to address shooting lulls.
What will December bring?