St. John's went 14-19 on the season, 7-11 in Big East play. On a national level, in isolation, those aren't great numbers, but compared to the year before (8-24, 1-17 in Big East play), those marks are a strong improvement.
Chris Mullin’s second St. John's team was consistent in significant ways. Consistently solid about maintaining a low turnover rate. Consistent in struggling to score and defend inside the paint. Consistent in forcing turnovers. Consistent in trying to play a fast pace. Consistent in rebounding struggles.
Not all consistency is good, but given the very obvious flaws in the Red Storm, the fact that the team won seven games in the league that send seven teams to the NCAA Tournament is intriguing, in the sense that there is potential - and in the sense that some of the problems can be answered by personnel.
On court improvements/ declines for the Red Storm
The team enjoyed a blowout win over Syracuse, a win at Carnesecca Arena over a ranked Butler team (that later in the season made the Sweet Sixteen), beat DePaul twice, beat Georgetown two of three times, and handled Seton Hall, Marquette and Providence, all NCAA Tournament teams.
Along the way, St. John’s transformed from a team that wasn’t very good on either side of the ball to one that often shot three-pointers - and often made them. The improvement in three-point shooting (from 32% of the team’s shots in 2015-16 to 36% in 2016-17) and the higher percentage of shots taken (from 34% to 38%) made for a more efficient offense.
Those improvements happened while Chris Mullin’s team was lowering their turnover rate from one of the worst in the country (nearly 21% of possessions) to a more manageable rate (18%). The difference may not seem great, but combined with the improvements in shooting, the Red Storm were competitive in far more of their contests than the previous season.
St. John’s year over year offense 2017/2017
|St. John's offense
|St. John's offense
Those numbers are not elite, however; this team is not Creighton or Villanova, or Notre Dame, all offensive machines. That may come with development; consider that the three top scorers were all newcomers to the team.
But that offensive improvement was not reflected on the defensive side, as the team showed a slight decline overall. Better competition is a factor, but the team really felt a lack of a presence inside.
The percentage of made shots for opponents on two-pointers, despite the continuation of elite shot blocking and an ability of the Red Storm to force turnovers, was a particular worry. And opponents found getting second shots even easier than they had in the previous season.
St. John’s year-over-year defense, 2016/2017
|Points/ possession Allowed
Opposing teams also shot better on threes, but some research indicates that is a number that fluctuates outside of the control of the defense.
With all of that said, the players developed some better habits as the season went on - getting back after missed shots more consistently, for example. But outside of steals, the defense didn’t disrupt opponents the way the Johnnies need to in order to stay close in games.
Consistency a consistent issue
For Chris Mullin’s team, new as they were at crucial positions, there was also the issue that the team seemed to struggle with making smart plays and with playing with the fire needed to execute the system well.
And by well, we are talking about playing crisp basketball, about recognizing where to rotate quickly enough for that rotation to be effective on either side of the ball and about understanding the teammates and system to execute not just quickly, but also decisively.
“Part of it is experience,” Chris Mullin said after a loss to Seton Hall. “Young players and inexperienced players play well sometimes, and the really good ones that go to the next level do it every day. And it's not just the games. The other thing is learning how to practice and [analyzing] scouting reports. All of these things are new to these guys.”
A second year in the system for Shamorie Ponds, Marcus Lovett, Tariq Owens and Bashir Ahmed could see improvements, if the issue is experience.
The players will need to learn how to play off of each other’s strengths more effectively, to not give up debilitating runs in the middle of games and to play a cohesive, five-fingers-of-the-hand style of hoops in a tough Big East.
Player changes: St. John’s led by the new jacks
Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett were two of the nation's best freshmen, and were a competitive Big East backcourt despite their newness - and diminutive size.
At times, newcomer wing Bashir Ahmed's attacking style yielded benefits, as he drew fouls powering through other players.
Tariq Owens was a revelation, able to keep up with guards and swatting shots from the weak side.
From the bench, Malik Ellison had some sharp games, Federico Mussini made some contributions, and Darien Williams, when he came off the bench, provided some decent moments with his size - as did Amar Alibegovic.
But the bench lacked the impact of the Ponds/ LoVett/ Ahmed trio, and that trio found themselves struggling to generate shots. That struggle manifested itself at times in the middle of opening quarters, where the Johnnies found themselves falling behind in some games behind devastating opponent runs - and offensively impatient possessions.
Games won, lost, lessons learned & questions to answer for St. John’s
“We've struggled at times,” said Chris Mullin after the Syracuse victory, “but when you have a young team, unfortunately the losses teach them better. In a game like this they can see what we're talking about. Not so much the score, but when you give an effort and [bring] energy and share the ball and do the right things, at some point it works.”
That loss was a taste of what can happen for this team.
On the downside, the Johnnies also experienced what can happen with lower-energy defensive efforts, poor communication and not sharing the ball well.
For example: St. John's lost to Delaware State, a 10-win MEAC team whose other wins were against team that don't play in Division I and the MEAC, consistently one of Division I's weakest conferences. And St. John's lost to LIU-Brooklyn, a local team that plays in another of the nation's weakest Division I conferences, the NEC.
None of the other losses were as mind-searing to fans as those two, but the issues of defense, youth and smart shot selection were a theme that arose when the team struggled. For his part, Chris Mullin preached consistency, getting repetitions and learning each other - the essences of teamwork.
Sometimes it worked - such as in the game against Marquette, where the ball movement was good and the forwards had influence on the game - and sometimes it didn't. The team’s size and inability to get the forwards good looks in space (and the forwards inability to carve out space.
But often, at the heart of the issues seemed to be a team that needed to better understand, communicate and execute the head coach’s philosophy.
“The games we played well, it didn't just happen, we made it happen,” Chris Mullin said after a loss to Creighton. “To get good shots you have to cut hard, screen hard and be aggressive.”
Along with the improvement in numbers, the Johnnies introduced a pair of dynamic freshmen and a JUCO newcomer to lead the team. Combined with a transfer who sat out the previous year, the team remade their core in a single season.
With three departures, Federico Mussini, Malik Ellison and Darien Williams, the Red Storm lose a total of six years of experience in the roster; but the team adds some decent talent. Four more players are coming into active duty this fall - two transfers and incoming freshmen Sidney Wilson and Bryan Trimble - does that mean the team can make another leap?
Has the team generated a successful, winning identity?
“Inexperienced players play well sometimes,” Mullin said after a game last year. “The good ones do it every day.”
Will we see a roster, with the needed experience, playing up to their ability every game?