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St. John’s in good position headed into league play, but room to improve

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The Red Storm have an opportunity to make noise in the conference.

Valley Of The Sun Shootout:  St. John's v Grand Canyon Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“I’m proud of them,” said coach Chris Mullin about his team so far. “They played really great defense these first 12 games, which shows you the commitment to each other. I think we have a long way to go, too. We have a lot of improvements that we can make, so I think we’ve put ourselves in a great position.”

Indeed, the Red Storm have put themselves in a good position. Entering their upcoming matchup with Providence, they will hold a sturdy 10-2 record. St. John’s only defeats came against a hot-shooting Missouri, and the third-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils, which the Johnnies kept very close.

Their strong start has caught the eye of ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. His latest bracketology included St. John’s as an 11 seed.

Still, the Red Storm need to grab a few more marquee victories in Big East action to remain in the NCAA Tournament picture. According to KenPom’s rankings, their two best victories are over UCF and Nebraska, which may not impress the selection committee if the Johnnies are on the bubble.

Luckily, they still have two chances against each of Villanova, Seton Hall, Creighton, Xavier, and one home date with Duke.

Much of their early success throughout this season can be attributed to their stout defense. As Justin Simon said to reporters, “all of the games we have won this season have been by defense. I think we’re playing defense at a high level.”

KenPom’s tempo-neutral statistical rankings rank St. John’s defense as the 11th most efficient in college basketball, and 2nd best in the Big East, just behind Villanova. The Red Storm are forcing turnovers about 27% of the time, and forcing steals on 12% of opposing possessions. Furthermore, they have held opponents to 42% shooting from two, and 32% from three-point range.

That is without even mentioning all the shots they have swatted this season. According to KenPom, only Michigan State and Syracuse block more shots per possession.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Arizona State Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

“Our defense turns into offense,” said Shamorie Ponds after beating Saint Joseph’s. “That’s what we do, and we won it down the stretch.”

On offense, the story has been different for St. John’s. While they have done a nice job not turning it over, an issue in years prior under Mullin, they have been struggling to shoot well. The Johnnies are shooting 46% inside the arc, and 34% from beyond the perimeter.

Much of this may be due to the overall ineffectiveness of Shamorie Ponds as a shooter. Last season, Ponds shot about 38% from deep. Through 12 games this year, he is only converting on 21% of his three-point attempts.

Still, Ponds, a contender for First Team Big East honors, is averaging 20 points per contest.

The Brooklyn guard has found ways to impact the game in different areas. Compared to last season, he is rebounding the ball better, and doing a better job getting to the free throw line.

Last season, he shot a total of 141 free throws. So far this year, he has shot 79 free throws. Since the shots are not falling, Ponds has improved as a slasher, getting to the hoop with strength. He should only play better as his three-point shooting steadies.

For St. John’s, their strong defense will continue to push them over the edge in many contests this season. However, if they are to play at their best, they must find ways to shoot better. Following a Christmas break, the Red Storm will have an opportunity to show their worth at home against Providence.