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Takeaways: on St. John’s roster depth, Chris Mullin, defense

A look at three choices that has led St. John’s program to this point.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Georgetown
We’re frustrated too
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

St. John’s dropped another heartbreaker to Georgetown on Saturday. The team is 0-8 in Big East play, and the season looks bleak — no NCAA Tournament, likely no NIT given the record, and possibly another losing season.

We wanted to do three takeaways... but the flow is the same: team shows talent, team has lull late in second half, team almost pulls it out.

Rinse, repeat.

St. John’s is at a point that longtime Johnnies fans know all-too-well — the lost season point, where everything feels wrong, wins are hard to come by. So instead of doing the Takeaways, we will instead take a look at how we got to this point.

The players have been hard on themselves, trying to keep focused amid the drama of their teammate sitting out for the rest of the season. Those same players obviously committed some mistakes of trying-too-hard, of overemphatic choices — like Kassoum Yakwe’s foul on Marcus Derrickson shooting a three-pointer while the Red Storm were up five points and 15 seconds left.

Look at the win probability chart below from and note how you can see where that play snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

That spike there is “the foul you should never commit”

In the second overtime, Shamorie Ponds fouled a Hoya three-point shooter who MADE the shot, giving up four points. There was a lot of trying too hard and poor/ fatigued execution to go around.

This disappointing season, as all seasons do, falls on the coach and the coach’s choices.

Did the staff not get the players in the right spaces? Were they not prepared? Were they not skilled enough to execute?

The coaching staff is not happy either, but has consistently preached the idea of battling and keeping the faith.

“Our guys for the whole night battled pretty well,” Chris Mullin said after the loss in Washington DC. “Tough ending for us.”

“Tough ending” is a muted response compared to the fire coming from the fanbase. Why so muted?

The feelings out there

While conversing with one of our reliable readers (thank you, SJUFan!), our back-and-forth went to the idea of whether a different coach would do better. And this conversation focused on an article from two and a half years ago written by Steve Politi, a longtime hoops writer on the New Jersey side, who then likened the choice of Chris Mullin for St. John’s to the hire of Eddie Jordan.

There are valid issues with St. John’s that can be tied to a lack of in-game experience from the staff — only Abdelmassih has been a sideline coach for regular season games on any level.

That’s very valid, though that was not Politi’s point.

Politi thought that high school kids would not know Mullin’s name and not react to his resume.

One thing that has worked for St. John’s is that recruiting has been decent, and in part because they can tout “two Hall of Famers”.

Only Shamorie Ponds has been a top-50 player that has come to St. John’s, and the miss on Luther Muhammed is unfortunate, but the staff has brought in solidly rated transfers and has a four star-player and a few players with upside coming in next year.

Mullin is getting in the door, though he will need to bring in high level players — more Shamorie Ponds-es — in the next class to keep pace with the league.

The recruiting is defensible. But the on-court product now is a surprise, given that the Johnnies were thought to be a possible top-five Big East team.

On the court, the Red Storm have been good at certain aspects of defense (forcing steals and stifling shooting inside the arc) but woeful at keeping opponents from shooting threes or making threes, which has been a deadly combination.

The team has also made mistakes in late stages of games - the fouls against Georgetown, going scoreless for seven minutes against Xavier, et cetera.

The lack of poise, the inability to generate good shots or execute late in the game is an issue.

It’s the issue that has some saying that Mullin isn’t cut out for coaching, or that he needs to bring in an assistant with more experience like Mike Rice, the former Robert Morris and Rutgers coach currently working on the high school level after being disgraced.

The lack of execution is likely a mix of a coaching issue and a fatigue issue, because the most glaring thing about St. John’s is that they are, to the coaching staff in the last game, six deep in regulation time.

When not forced to play other players because of players fouled out, Chris Mullin and his staff went with Marvin Clark II, Tariq Owens, Ponds, Justin Simon and Bashir Ahmed with Bryan Trimble Jr. off the bench. There was a determined effort to stick with the team’s best six players, an obvious lack of trust for the other two at this point.

These final game results and these issues are a result of three choices.

Choice 1: The Hire

What happened: The choice to hire Chris Mullin was a choice to prioritize passion and loyalty, while trying to go against the grain.

In 2015, after letting Steve Lavin go, the Red Storm had competition for a new coach with openings at Florida, Arizona State, Tennessee and others; but it seems that the program decided on the idea of Mullin early.

St. John’s has shown an urge to prioritize coaches who first, do not want to leave and second, do not draw negative attention after Mike Jarvis (who flirted with pro jobs, & had players draw negative attention) and Fran Fraschilla (who flirted with other jobs) left. So after Lavin’s tenure, which had its share of drama, there was a choice to bring in a face of the program, despite his need to learn on the job.

You may read that and think “shoulda hired Hurley!” but the decision was to hire a coach with a lot of experience as a general manager, evaluating him as smart and able to make the switch from management to the floor.

From there, the decision assumes that the program is willing to go through the growing pains that all coaches experience in their first years of being the head decision-maker, instead of bringing in a coach seasoned in that aspect of the game. What Mullin brings is a deeper knowledge of NBA player development, and the school hoped that would translate to NCAA-level player development.

With respect to player development, Justin Simon has indeed built himself a jump shot. Shamorie Ponds can sell himself as a lead guard on the next level, and seems to be improving his ability to see others on the court. A year in, Bashir Ahmed is more under control.

Marvin Clark II fouls far less per 40 minutes. Tariq Owens has developed a strong and confident jump shot, a rudimentary face-up game, has improved as a rebounder and fouls far less per 40 minutes.

Kassoum Yakwe has regressed in the number of shots he has taken since his freshman year, though he looks a bit better in pick and roll plays. Amar Alibegovic has had moments, and certainly has had more leeway to play under a new coach, but has not prospered under Mullin.

Here, passion for the name of St. John’s had a huge value for the decision-makers who brought Mullin in.

A Hurley (there are two, Danny and Bobby, and rumors bounced around both names in connection with St. John’s) would always be a threat to jump ship for a bigger program, and the storyline of Mullin making the Johnnies rise again was obviously appealing - the family coming back to help out the family.

Chris Mullin press conference - Standing
by Tim Dimas

Outcome: we don’t know yet, no matter how much anger some people have of the outcome of the game-to-game coaching process.

The difference between a coach being “good” or “bad” is hard to quantify. Most of the prep is done before the game. St. John’s has looked prepared in their losing streak, generally, with solid approaches to Xavier’s defense, a competitive attacks of Villanova, Seton Hall and Creighton.

It could be better. Knowing that Mullin wanted the team to foul while up three points, but was unable to communicate that fact to his team on the floor is troubling.

Though that can happen to any coach, St. John’s needs to train their team better to understand how to think through and communicate in end-game situations, or, find a way to get the message to them on the floor.

Choice 2: The choice to think long-term.

What happened: Faced with players transferring (or players choosing to reject lowered playing time for other opportunities), St. John’s didn’t dig deep into the transfer market for one-year players, instead pursuing a pair of intriguing sit-out transfers, Sedee Keita and Mikey Dixon. Both will add depth and possibly impact next season.

But both take spots that could have gone to an immediately-available transfer or a freshman this season. After all, there are always a few players, even big men, who fall through the cracks and are available late in the recruiting cycle.

Like Sid Wilson, who committed to and enrolled at St. John’s for the summer, but left for UConn for the fall semester.

Wilson would have helped with depth and, hopefully, defense as a developing wing, but he would not have addressed the need in the front court. The team came in with a slim forward in Tariq Owens, who works hard, and the undersized but tough Marvin Clark, but they struggle to match the size/ strength combinations of front lines like Georgetown, Xavier and Seton Hall.

Darien Williams, a 6’8” forward, was effective for stretches for Chris Mullin. He moved on to Nevada, where the Wolf Pack look like a team who will make noise in the NCAA Tournament. But Williams played rarely and was dismissed for failing to adhere to program standards last weekend.

Outcome: This is the choice that looms largest. Next year’s roster will be better able to compete in the paint, with Owens Clark, Keita and freshmen Josh Roberts and J’Raan Brooks. But this year’s team struggles to get offense started near the basket, does not draw free throw attempts and struggles on the defensive glass.

Next year’s team may or may not be good at these aspects of the game, but it would be hard for them to be worse than this year’s squad.

Choice 3: The choice to craft a defense that is best at creating chaos.

What happened: the St. John’s defense has carried the team all season, even as shooters have struggled to make shots, from the outside in particular.

That defense requires quick scrambling and fast decision-making, doubling in the post and at times on the perimeter. That choice has played to the strengths of the team, until the team seems to show signs of fatigue. Then, the question of whether something less taxing, like a passive zone for stretches, might be a good choice.

This is the style the team wants to play, wants to live and die by. In this case, with only six players the staff feels it can trust to run right now, maybe the chaos is, at times a detriment.

To me, I think that the depth issues of this season are so extreme that it would be folly to make a definitive statement on the progress of the program.

Things are trending askew, yes, but it’s not hard to see that despite the flaws in the team and program that there is some progress here. It’s not in the wins and losses, apparently, where the Red Storm will be hard-pressed to meet last year’s total of 14 overall wins.

But there is a foundation being put in, an evenness of effort that was not always seen in some pre-Mullin years. The staff seem to have an idea of the kind of athlete and personality that they want, and the players have generally been all-in. That is important in building a team character, the way that Providence has, the way that Creighton has, even the way that Villanova has.

It does not happen overnight for all teams.

(We say that now, but one of the newcomers could certainly turn out to be a low character a-hole. We realize that Zach Brown seemed to find himself on the wrong side of the law for petty crime. We know.)

Will Mullin and the staff be able to turn the team around this year? Next year? Will the losses hurt recruiting for a now-pivotal 2019 class, which features players like Aidan Igiehon and Jalen Gaffney, who can propel the Johnnies to the next level?

Your thoughts?