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Three takeaways from another hard-fought loss for St. John’s

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Justin Simon, coaching, effort

Justin Simon looks to execute a transition attack
Wendell Cruz

In the early warm ups for St. John’s, first it was Amar Alibegovic and Tariq Owens working on give and go moves. Owens seemed quite smooth in these practice runs of driving to the basket but was not consistently hitting his jumper.

Then it was Bashir Ahmed and Marvin Clark II practicing together, first beginning with short turnaround moves under the basket or on drives from the corner then working off a give and go and pulling up for jumpers. Ahmed seemed particularly smooth during these warmups and one fan commented, “I am hoping to see a breakout game from Ahmed.”

Shamorie Ponds also was trying to find the range before the game started:

A second fan commented, “Whoever wins the battle between Shamorie Ponds and Creighton’s guards is gonna win.”

All three predictions, to a degree, would come true.


First Half

The game began with Ponds driving to the basket and drawing Bluejay defenders to him. He niftily passed to Owens who laid the ball in for an early 2-0 Johnnies lead.

Creighton finally scored on a banked-in jumper from the left side by Marcus Foster at the 16:15 mark and the Johnnies lead was cut to one, 3-2. Shortly thereafter Marvin Clark committed his second reach in foul, looking for a steal, and had to leave the court, replaced by Brian Trimble, Jr. Trimble has become first man off the bench for St. John’s.

The lead jockeyed back and forth for several minutes and an Alibegovic drive and pass to Owens, resulted in him being fouled while shooting a layup. Owens made both foul shots for an 11-8 Red Storm lead at the 10:12 mark.

The game began to drift away from the Johnnies. Khyri Thomas was fouled by Owens on what many thought was a clean block of a corner three-point jumper. He made all three free throws then followed with an uncontested three from the same corner. The Johnnies now trailed 18-13.

Tariq Owens gets a shot off over Creighton’s Toby Hegner
Wendell Cruz

At this point in the game, Owens led the Johnnies with six points and Simon had four. Ponds was scoreless, covered by Thomas and the rest of the Creighton defense.

Clark, back in to help save the game, drove the lane and was fouled. He made both shots and the lead was 18-15. The Johnnies pressed the inbounds pass by the Bluejays but the disciplined Bluejays easily broke the press.

The game got out of hand when the Johnnies failed to guard 6’10” Toby Hegner on two straight threes from the top of the key. Despite Ponds responding with a 25-footer for his first points, Hegner hit another three from the same spot with a hand in his face by a Red Storm defender.

The Johnnies closed the deficit to eleven points with a flurry of points from Ponds but trailed 36-25 at intermission. Owens continued to lead in scoring with eight points, with Ponds following with seven points, all scored late in the period.

Halftime

Fans noted some disturbing trends in the first half.

The first was that Creighton was beating the Johnnies down the court scoring off several fast breaks while the Johnnies had few of their own. If the Bluejays did not score directly on the break, they were able to pull back and then attack the Johnnies interior defense.

Thomas and Foster were driving to the basket then kicking out to open teammates for uncontested jump shots, many times three pointers.

The Creighton defensive scheme made the going rough for Ponds. He was guarded by Thomas, who many consider to be the top one-on-one defender in the Big East. Ponds was able to, at times, drive past him only to immediately be picked up by another Bluejay, most frequently 6’10” Hegner.

The Bluejay defense held St. John’s to shooting 29% in the first half while they connected on 41% of their shots. The Bluejays outrebounded the Johnnies 22-16 but the Johnnies led in steals 6-2 and in blocked shots 3-2. These efforts resulted in eleven turnovers for Creighton with only four for the Johnnies.

St. John’s came out of the locker room a full two minutes after Creighton did and fans viewed this as positive, assuming adjustments were being made.

Shamorie Ponds gets together with Chris Mullin
Wendell Cruz

Second Half

After another Hegner three to begin the half, Marvin Clark responded with a seven foot jumper and, at the 17:42 mark Ahmed was fouled on a drive and hit two of two free throws at the reducing the Creighton lead to 10.

However, two more threes by Marcus Foster increased the Bluejay lead to 45-29 and appeared to put the game out of reach for the Johnnies, who called timeout.

A season ticket holder questioned, “I don’t know all the strategies of the game, but why are the St. John’s coaches meeting for a discussion, leaving the players alone during most of the timeout?”

Another fan agreed and commented that Creighton Coach, Greg McDermott, was meeting with his players for most of the timeout.” A third commented that he has observed this practice in many St. John’s games.

Coach Mullin eventually entered the huddle and whatever he advised the team immediately worked.

With Ponds out of the game, Simon fed Owens for his second alley-oop basket of the game. Shortly after, Clark hit a three and Bryan Trimble followed with a three for an 8-0 St. Johns run, dropping the deficit to 45-37 with 14:40 to play. St. John’s was back in the game.

Trimble shoots as Mullin looks on
Wendell Cruz

At another timeout at 11:47 the public address announcer advised that the St. John’s Dance Team had come in first in the Hip Hop division and second overall in a national competition. At the next timeout they would perform one of their winning routines. The fans warmly received the news; they were ready to observe a successful team and the dance team did not disappoint them with their performance.

Justin Simon began to take over the game, and it became clear that Ponds would not be returning, though fans did not know why. Some speculated an injury, others that he was being rested and others that he was being disciplined.

In a two minute period, Simon scored on three possessions and chants of “defense! … defense,” led by the student section were heard throughout Carnesecca Arena. However, despite Simon’s heroics, Creighton managed to score on most of their possessions keeping their lead between six and nine points.

With 1:17 the Bluejays led by seven but a Simon drive cut it to five. The Johnnies kept fighting. A Simon to Ahmed pass resulted in an Ahmed layup and the lead was four. The Johnnies had to commit three fouls before they could send a Bluejay to the foul line.

Creighton’s Ronnie Harrell was fouled and made one of two foul shots and a Simon layup cut the lead to three with 13 seconds to go. The Johnnies had to foul and the Bluejay’s Davion Mintz made both of his free throws for a five point lead, the final deficit for the St. John’s Red Storm, now 10-11 on the season.

Yakwe, Ponds and Alibegovic watch another game slip away
Wendell Cruz

Three Takeaways

Takeaway #1: Simon takes over

When Shamorie Ponds left the game with a reported knee ailment, Justin Simon took the team on his back. During the 8-0 run that brought the game back into reach in the middle of the second half, Simon assisted on two of the three baskets. Then, in a span of two minutes, he hit three consecutive jumpers.

This opened the door as Creighton had to defend his shooting. He was able to attack the basket, sometimes scoring and other times dishing to teammates, most often Owens and Ahmed for easy layups.

Simon shot fifty percent from the field, had seven assists, three steals and led the Red Storm with nine rebounds. His quick hands created several deflections, which did not result in steals, but which were disruptive to Blue jay offensive sets.

The coaching staff needs to identify the best way to use Simon in conjunction with Shamorie Ponds to take off some of the pressure opposing teams are giving to Ponds. They can be a very impactful twosome, particularly since Simon appears to be developing a reliable jump shot.

Takeaway #2: The Coaching Staff

Fans are questioning the ability of a coaching staff that has lost nine straight Big East games, though they have been competitive in every game except for the second half of the Providence game and the second half against DePaul.

The coaching staff has three areas of responsibility. All three were discussed among the fans near me during the Creighton game.

The first is player development. Most fans can identify growth in the individual game of several St. John’s players.

  • Justin Simon has developed a jump shot this season.
  • Tariq Owens is an offensive threat this year, not just a shot blocker and rim runner. The staff is now feeding him under the basket and he appears to be developing some skills that still need work. At one point, Owens took a pass down low, drove to his right and unleashed a left handed hook. It hit the rim and bounced off but appears to be a weapon that could open up an effective inside game for him as he perfects it. Staff needs to continue to work with him on an inside game for the Johnnies. They have been very effective in aiding him in developing a reliable 10 to 15 foot jumper particularly from the baselines.
  • Bryan Trimble is progressing and even drove to the basket, pulled up and hit a ten footer as the Johnnies were making their comeback late in the game. Prior to this, Trimble rarely took shots that were not three pointers. Fans were calling for him to drive the ball towards the hoop to diversify his game. On this one play he did just that.
  • However, the lack of development from Kassoum Yakwe is puzzling. To his credit, he came to give a few minutes despite an ankle injury sustained in the previous game.
Kassoum Yakwe defends Mitch Ballock
Wendell Cruz

The staff need to find a way to reach him as there have been moments this year that improvement was noted; he has quickness, energy and talent, but his contributions have been inconsistent.

Game Strategy is the second responsibility of the staff. There seems to be adequate pregame preparation. In this game the Red Storm held Creighton scoreless for the first three and a half minutes of the game with solid man to man defense. The Johnnies led the game by three points ten minutes into the half. The Red Storm attempted a zone press after made free throws in the first half but Creighton broke it fairly easily. It was discarded as the game progressed.

The defense broke down when center Tony Hegner began hitting uncontested threes. Hegner had been effective in the past hitting three pointers and the staff did not seem to prepare the Red Storm for this possibility – only the last of the three threes was contested.

For the most part during season the Johnnies have started the game with effective defense.

The problem is the adjustments during the game. This is the third element of coaching. Creighton coach McDermott seemed to be ahead of the Red Storm staff in making effective adjustments, particularly during the first half.

In addition, fans noted that other Big East coaches were busy giving guidance to the team, while the Red Storm for most of the timeout were discussing strategy amongst themselves. There are many ways of making decisions and discussing strategy, but we wondered why the Johnnies’ staff conducted themselves differently. Perhaps that is a little thing, but the issue for the team has been executing on the floor and finding answers to other teams making runs.

Takeaway #3: Don’t forget the team’s Effort

At the beginning of the game a fan stated that the team always plays hard. This team could have given in when Ponds was removed with his injury. He had just come alive at the end of the first half and it was reasonable to expect him to continue in the second half.

When Ponds left, Marcus Foster hit two threes for the Bluejays and St. Johns was down by 16 points. The team could have quit.

But they didn’t. Justin Simon took over and led the team almost back by the end of the game. The team, short-handed to start, lost their top scorer and almost pulled the game out.

We should appreciate the effort and continue to support the team.

Outlook

Losing nine in a row in the league is never a predictor of good things on the horizon. It is truly one game at a time for the rest of the season. There is always the Big East tournament and the probability that the team will play on the first night of the tournament.

DePaul’s record is 2-6. The Johnnies get to play them again and a win could bring the teams closer to even. Moving ahead of DePaul and possibly Georgetown, though the team is three games behind the Hoyas, would have the Johnnies face one of the two weaker competitors in the league. A win in the 8-9 game would most likely bring a second round game with Xavier, whom the Johnnies played against competitively at Xavier last week.

Will an upset victory at Butler on Saturday turn the psyche of the team around? Yes it is one game at a time. One game at a time.