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Looking back at the season’s play, offseason goals, plus final game vs Villanova

The Fans in the Stands takeaways, plus lessons learned, goals for 2017-18.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-St. John's vs Villanova Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

First, the final impression of the Red Storm team in Chris Mullin’s second year comes from a blowout loss in the second game of the Big East Tournament. Winning the first game was good, and losing to the overall #1 team in the NCAA Tournament is not shameful. But for those who think this team can get closer to excellence, the Johnnies have a long way to go.

A Villanova fan at the onset of the St. John’s/Villanova quarterfinal game of the Big East tournament shared, “St. John’s has skilled young players but Villanova has leaders on the team – not one but many starting with Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson.”

In the game on January 14, 2017 Marcus LoVett pressured point guard Jalen Brunson into seven turnovers as the Red Storm competed against the National Champs. This performance was not to be replicated on March 9, 2017 as Brunson skillfully managed the defending National Champs to a dominant win over the Red Storm.

Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit a corner three at the 19:35 mark and Villanova never looked back. LoVett hit three jumpers and made a nice pass to Shamorie Ponds for a fast break layup to keep the Johnnies within striking distance during the first five minutes of the game. But it was just one Johnnie against a Villanova team which distributed the ball, played defense with the attitude of a defending national champion and effectively boxed out when rebounding. It was a basketball clinic with teammates knowing their roles and executing them almost flawlessly.

A 7-0 run by Villanova put the Wildcats ahead 19-8. Coach Chris Mullin kept experimenting with different combinations of Red Storm players but even two threes by Federico Mussini did not stem the disciplined Nova squad’s offensive and defensive play. Jenkins (24 points) and later Donte DiVincenzo (25 points) were hitting jumpers from the corner and the Villanova defense stepped into passing lanes and turned the Johnnies over.

During the T.V. timeout at 6:29 Johnnies fans wondered how the team was down 30-16 when the shooting percentages were close? “We aren’t playing that bad was the consensus of fans” … but things would only get worse.

As has been the case at times in the season, the Johnnies were losing the loose ball battle but this day, uncharacteristically, they were also losing the turnover battle.

Late in the first half Malik Ellison was alone in the defensive corner about to grab a rebound and start a break. A bit off balance, he decided to let it go out of bounds only to graze the ball with his hand. A few seconds later DiVencenzo of Villanova hit a corner three and what might have been a St. John’s fast break simply added to the already high deficit. It was that kind of game for the Red Storm.

Villanova led 52 to 26 at the half and remarkably had not had one personal foul called on any player. One fan summarized, “No fouls against them? They must be ready to challenge the Golden State Warriors next week?”

The second half brought more of the same. The Johnnies came out in a press and Villanova easily beat it, often resulting in layups. Their outside shooting continued above fifty percent. On one play early in the second half there were nine passes in one thirty second possession. St. John’s defended eight of them successfully but the ninth, a pass from Hart to Jenkins for a layup, was one too many.

It was an inglorious end to an up and down season which included impressive wins against several quality teams and losses to teams the Johnnies should have beaten.

Coach Mullin concluded that much improvement can be made during the off season.

Takeaways from the 2016-17 St. John’s Men’s Basketball Season

The Pursuit of Consistency

At halftime of the Marquette/ Seton Hall quarterfinal game two St. John’s fans were asked: if the Johnnies were playing either of these two teams would they be competitive. The answer was honest, “we are too inconsistent at this time to compete against accomplished Big East teams.”

Inconsistent between games, between halves, within halves. Was the team that beat Syracuse by 33 points in the Carrier Dome on December 21st the same team that lost to Delaware State (Kenpom ranking: 339) and LIU (Kenpom: 254) a few weeks before? If these two winnable games were won, the 14-19 season would be 16-17 with a possibility of a N.I.T. bid.

What about the 17-0 run against Georgetown on February 25th only to be followed by giving up a 17-0 run to the Hoyas a few minutes later?

Consistency comes from balanced scoring, defense with attitude, experience and, most importantly, leadership.

To requote the Villanova fan, “we have leaders.” St. John’s fans staying for the tournament saw Villanova’s leaders. How does Josh Hart always seem to be in the right place at the most necessary time? Fans were impressed how his play inspired the play of his teammates.

Who will come forward to be the leaders on the St. John’s team for the 2017-18 season?

Defense with Attitude?

The game of the tournament was Villanova versus Seton Hall on March 10, 2017. There was incredible drama at the end but, for Red Storm fans, what stood out was the defensive play of both teams.

It was “Defense with Attitude”.

Defense is skill, yes, and it is technique. It is teamwork but what was on display on March 10th was defense with attitude. Every shot, every pass, thrown or received, was contested. Every spot on the floor near the basket was contested. With or without the ball, defenders did not give in. Any pass deep in the paint – contested.

Don’t confuse attitude with effort. They are different as attitude sets the standard for effort. Blocked shots negate opponent’s field goal attempts. They energize players, the team and the crowd. However, fifty percent of the time the shooting team retrieves the ball.

Leaning on an opponent and refusing to allow an opponent to shoot from his comfort zone or causing an unbalanced shot, leaves the defender in an advantageous position for a rebound. A hand in the face when shooting, causes missed shots and once again an advantageous rebounding position.

How to build defensive skills is the coaching staff’s challenge. How to install attitude comes from the staff but, moreso, from leadership on the team. While watching Villanova fans observed players quickly taking responsibility for poor execution and teammates supporting them. When leaders have attitude, it spreads throughout the team and the team develops a similar determined approach to doing all the little things to assure success.

The Guard Play

LoVett, Ponds, Mussini, Ellison and, at times, Ahmed made up the guard rotation for the Red Storm. They were a dynamic quintet on offense and, although quick to fill passing lanes on defense and making abundant steals, they struggled with face-to-face man on man defense.

LoVett, Ponds and Mussini could be explosive with Ponds (17.4 points per game) and LoVett (15.9 points per game), showing some consistency. Mussini totaled less minutes but his points per minute played (.43 ) were comparable to Ponds (.52) and LoVett (.50).

Ellison brought multi-faceted skills to the Red Storm and often received the most challenging defensive assignment. He excelled in the win over Georgetown in the play-in game of the tournament.

Ahmed was most effective attacking the basket from his wing position and often drew fouls. On occasion he would hit threes when open.

Added to this group with be Justin Simon, a 6’5’ red shirt, who sat out the 2016-17 season. Among other skills Simon provides another taller guard to reduce the mismatches St. John’s guards faced at times this year.

Off season goals

The St. John’s guards should work on the following three tasks in off season preparation for 2017-18 season:

  • Continue to improve long range shooting.
  • Improve wide-angle court vision and better decision-making .
  • Improve man-on-man defensive containment skills with “attitude”.

The Frontcourt Play

Bashir Ahmed also fits into this collection of players, when playing in the high post with his back to the basket. As the season progressed this appeared to be an effective position for him to play.

Owens, Williams, Alibegovic and Yakwe all had moments during the season of excellence but they were mostly moments – for example, the Seton Hall game for Yakwe and the LIU game for Williams.

Most St. John’s fans, when asked for the greatest need facing the coming year’s squad, provided the same answer – a center or forward who could rebound, be able to be a focal point for some offensive sets and who could pass out of the deep post to open players when defenses collapse to guard him. A player with skills like Andrew Chrabascz of Butler would complement the current Red Storm roster and provide some balance on offense, opening up the game for the skilled Red Storm guards.

Who can meet these needs? Does 6’7” Marvin Clark possess these skills? Will weight training provide needed strength to some of the athletic frontcourt players on the team so that they can compete successfully on defense with bulkier Big East opponents?

Will one of the current frontcourt players make a significant leap in his performance?

Such a leap is not unheard of. Sir’ Dominic Pointer averaged 6.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game in his first three seasons with the Red Storm (2011-2014). Yet in his breakout senior season (2014-15) he blossomed into a 13.7 points/ 7.6 rebounds per game performer, good enough to be drafted in the second round by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Is there a Pointer-type performer on the front court ready for a similar improvement?

Off season goals

The St. John’s front court should work on the following three tasks in off season preparation for 2017-18 season:

  • Improve man-on-man defensive containment skills with “attitude”.
  • Develop back to the basket and put-back (on offensive rebounds) scoring ability
  • Work on ability to catch passes deep in the paint and awareness when guards feed the post

For the Fans: there was enough improvement to feel optimistic about the future. The coaching staff still has one scholarship to offer. Brighter days are on the way to add to the special moments we experienced this year.

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