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St. John’s early season takeaways II: the defense never rests?

A look at the defensive numbers... and some aspects that could use improvement.

Wendell Cruz

One thing is for certain: the mindset of this team is light years from last year’s more offensive-minded squad.

After the UCF victory on Sunday, Chris Mullin remarked that St. John’s “couldn’t win a game with defense before this weekend, and now we can.”

The team’s ability to find ways to win this season has been predicated on some offensive aggressiveness, but also on the defense, which has been active and energetic for most of the minutes on the court.

Additions on the floor have helped, but the energetic mindset has created a team that gets deflections and wears on the will of opponents for 40 minutes - not traits that would have easily been associated with the team in previous years.

By the numbers

St. John’s is currently 33rd in the nation, according to KenPom, in adjusted (for competition) defensive efficiency, giving up 95.4 points per 100 possessions against Division I opponents.

Last season, the Johnnies allowed 102.7 points/ 100 possessions, 131st in the country.

That 95.4 pts/100 number includes some spectacular marks. The Red Storm are allowing 39% shooting inside the arc, blocking 20% of opponent two-point shots, forcing turnovers on 27% of opponent possessions (seventh in the nation), and making foes bleed a lot of clock to find shots.

Wendell Cruz

The turnover numbers carry over from last season, there the Johnnies forced turnovers on 20% of possessions (51st in the nation). But the shooting inside the arc for opposing teams was much better. And visually, the guards are applying much more pressure to make opponents uncomfortable.

On the downside, though, is that opposing teams are drawing a number of fouls; the ratio of free throws allowed to field goals attempted for the seven opponents is 44%, 288th in the country.

Opponents are shooting 34% from outside the arc, which would be a passable-to-solid number if those same opponents were not taking 39% of their shots outside the arc.

Many good defensive teams (Duke being a prime example) make it their work to keep opponents from shooting three-pointers - “running them off the arc” - and St. John’s showed real struggles with that concept against both Oregon State and Missouri.

Three defensive notes

Improvements on Defense: St. John’s, only giving up 60 points per game, has been making it difficult for opponents to establish rhythm in half-court sets. Simon is averaging close to three steals a game, while Ponds and LoVett are both hovering around two steals per game.

Bashir Ahmed and Marvin Clark have also contributed to the theft-fest. Both players and Amar Alibegovic and Kassoum Yakwe have provided strong minutes on defense. The latter two players have been willing to give up their bodies, switch defenders, and bang opponents down low.

Tariq Owens has used his quickness and length to make all kinds of passes difficult, inside and out; his shot blocking has improved this season and the team is better defensively with him on the floor.

It starts with Marcus LoVett pressing the point guard and Justin Simon often shadowing the opponent’s best wing/ guard player. deflections happen. Quick hands reach in, the feet keep moving, and suddenly the Red Storm are a tough opponent to generate offensive rhythm against.

That defense has allowed the Red Storm to get out in transition, where all five players can be dangerous.

Rebounding/ fouling: Despite significant improvements, there is still a lot of work to be done in the rebounding department for St. John’s.

The team’s best rebounder is likely 6’5” guard Justin Simon, who is grabbing 20% of opponent misses. Tariq Owens and Shamorie Ponds put in good efforts on the glass as well.

However, a big struggle in the rebounding category has been foul trouble. Marvin Clark II has already fouled out twice, and Tariq Owens, once. Other players have been saddled with fouls that restrict their aggressiveness.

Stifling threes: The Red Storm was undone by the three-pointer in two games last weekend. Opponents are finding space behind screens or spots in the corner where the Johnnies’ scrambling defense sometimes leaves a gap.