Yesterday afternoon, a few hardy St. John’s fans made their way to Piscataway, NJ, to see the Red Storm casually handle Rutgers for about 30 minutes, and then, in the words of head coach Chris Mullin, get ”a little lackadaisical” - enough that the Scarlet Knights gave the home fans a last-second win that sent them off cheering.
A loss can be demoralizing. For St. John’s, it should be instructive. A lot worked the way it was supposed to - defense turning into offense, 17 fastbreak points, 23 points off of turnovers, an excellent game from Shamorie Ponds on offense.
But there are some hints to the identity of this team that will limit their ceiling - and issues to work out.
Let’s get a few things out of the way:
This was an exhibition game, not a real matchup that affects postseason eligibility. But it was the best kind of exhibition for the Red Storm, who danced away from Division II American International last week.
No, this week, the team faced Division I athletes, mature, big bodies, and players that the staff had considered for the Red and White (or in yesterday’s case, Blue).
That’s good, because facing a physical Rutgers team that lacks shooting, Chris Mullin’s team got a wake up call.
Or was it? It is known that the team’s weakness is on the interior defense and in defense in general. This was a lesson that the team will hopefully be able to work on this week.
“I'm really not concerned about our team offensively,” Chris Mullin said. “It's really just maintaining our presence defensively - taking on the individual challenge and then sticking to our team principles. Letting them know we’re ‘in the building’.”
Second half defense? For a team that needs improved interior defense, this is significant. The Johnnies, who did waste some fouls on ticky-tack stuff that may or may not have been called in another game, gave up 70% shooting in the second half on drives by Corey Sanders and Mike Williams (until injury) and on the bullying, pounding, relentless digging in the paint of Deshawn Freeman.
He left bruises on bodies and egos. Also, Rutgers shot 18 of their 28 free throws in that second half. Rutgers scored 1.48 points per possession in a half where they were down 11 and looked like they could be blown out. Rutgers turned the ball over on 21% of their possessions in the first half, but 15% in the second half.
Being more cautious to avoid foul trouble, combined with perhaps a lack of attention as the Knights refused to give up, could be the culprit.
That fouling is going to be a problem. At the end of the game, Marvin Clark II had fouled out in 23 minutes, while Tariq Owens and Kassoum Yakwe each had four fouls. At the end of the first half, Amar Alibegovic had two fouls (in six minutes), Owens had two fouls (in five minutes) and Bryan Trimble, Jr., had two fouls in two minutes; Yakwe had three.
The Johnnies were decent on the defensive glass in the first half - Rutgers grabbed 26% of their offensive misses - but poor in the second, as Rutgers rebounded 46% of their misses, including the last tip-in for the win.
Can’t really body up in the paint if a forward is afraid of foul number five - or already fouled out, like Marvin Clark, possibly the team’s best rebounder, was.
Hard to be a defensive game changer, as Kassoum Yakwe, who blocked a shot on his first defensive possession - was at times.
The outside shots will fall. We think. Shamorie Ponds scored 25 points, showing off his ability to get shots off - but he only shot 1/6 from outside the arc. Bashir Ahmed, who ran hot and cold last season, shot 1/5. Marcus LoVett was 1/6. Marvin Clark, who struggled against AIC (0/6 beyond the arc), shot 1/5.
Bryan Trimble was 2/2, we should point out.
This team is going to need to feed from the outside, especially to put teams away. They are better shooters than this. The ball movement seems to be there.
Marvin Clark, in particular, needs the shots to fall; if he is an outside threat, that opens up the floor for even more attacking options for the guards.
Next up for St. John’s: New Orleans comes to Carnesecca Arena on Friday night.