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Three takeaways: St. John’s overmatched vs Blue Demons; Ahmed; any optimism?

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Bashir Ahmed was solid, the interior strength was an issue, is there any hope?

Marvin Clark backs down the shorter Justin Roberts
Wendell Cruz

During warmups, both Bashir Ahmed and Marvin Clark were drilling three-pointer after three-pointer with injured point guard Marcus LoVett feeding them, limping slightly but involved. Fans were encouraged for the kind of shooting night that would elevate the Red Storm over DePaul for the first Big East win and the 11th win on the season.

St. John’s celebrated Lou Carnesecca’s 93rd birthday from the sidelines, but fell hard on the court, 91-74, falling to 10-6, 0-4 in Big East play.

Lou Carnesecca receives a plaque from AD Anton Goff
Wendell Cruz

The shooting touch displayed in practice came through at the onset of the game with Clark hitting two threes, one from the top of the key and the second from the right corner. At the 16:37 mark St. John’s led 8 to 6.

The lead jockeyed back and forth between the Blue Demons and the Red Storm and a twelve-foot jumper by Tariq Owens put the Johnnies ahead by three, 15 to 12. It would be their largest and last lead of the game.

DePaul went on a 12-0 run over the next two minutes and forty seconds to take a 24-15 lead. The Red Storm were being outplayed and outmuscled on the defensive boards.

Justin Roberts + Marin Maric trap Shamorie Ponds as Kassoum Yakwe looks on
Wendell Cruz

At the end of the first half, St. John’s had a higher field goal percentage (50% to 48%) and a higher three point percentage (53% to 44%) but they were losing the other statistical indices, most notably the rebound battle. DePaul had 9 defensive rebounds out of 17 chances - DePaul grabbed almost half of their misses, leading to 12 second-chance points for the Blue Demons.

Bashir Ahmed was the only Johnnie consistently hitting shots and grabbing rebounds. At the half, he had 11 points and three rebounds, hitting a short jumper at the one second mark bringing the Johnnies to within four four 42 to 38.

At the half fans in the stands questioned the team’s intensity throughout the first half and stated that whoever is assigned to 6’11” center Marin Maric needed to do better to box him out. As other Blue Demons freed themselves on drives to the basket, fans noted that help defense was consistently leaving Maric free for easy rebounds and put backs.

Other fans noted that Blue Demon top scorer Max Strus, held down by Justin Simon at the beginning of the half, was running Johnnie defenders all over the court as his teammates set screen after screen for him on the baseline. His efforts wore down Johnnies defenders as the game progressed.

Justin Simon defends DePaul’s Max Strus
Wendell Cruz

Second Half

The Johnnies came out of the locker room with a determined look. The second half started with Ahmed grabbing an offensive rebound and feeding Simon who drove for a bucket reducing the lead to two.

Chants of “defense … defense” emerged. At the 19:05 mark the Blue Demons were called for an offensive foul, giving the ball to the Johnnies. Shamorie Ponds drove the right side and attempted a bounce pass to Tariq Owens that went awry. It was the closest the Johnnies would come to tying the score.

Chris Mullin instructs team
Wendell Cruz

DePaul shifted on defense from a man-to-man to a zone and back to man-to-man defense. The Johnnies seemed uncertain when the defense rotated and often were taking forced shots as the time clock went down.

By the 14:10 mark Maric added to his array of short jumpers and put-backs by banking in a 25-foot three pointer for a 58-46 Blue Demon lead. Kassoum Yakwe entered the game and provided a much needed spark for the Red Storm, driving for a layup and being fouled. A minute later he hit the offensive boards, and fouled on his put back attempt. He hit his two free throws. A fan summarized, “this is what we need, maybe this is the game Yakwe comes out of it.”

The Johnnies battled and, after Ponds made a jumper at the 8:56 mark, they trailed 66-60. Pressure by Ponds on the Blue Demons’ inbounds pass led to a turnover and excitement was high at Carnesecca Arena.

Ponds then missed a three point attempt that would have cut the lead to three.

Dance team in the second half
Wendell Cruz

The Blue Demons stretched the lead to eight and Yakwe responded with a layup at the 8:21 mark to bring the Red Storm back to six down. However, an 11-2 run by the Blue Demons over the next five minutes put the game out of reach.

At the end of the game a nine year old fan, who intently watched the game, was asked who he thought played best for the Johnnies. He replied “I like Ponds but he missed too many shots. Bashir Ahmed made points and made the other team foul him.” Ahmed led the Red Storm with 21 points and seven rebounds.

Other fans noted that the Red Storm were outrebounded 46 to 30 and feared that “Ponds has lost his shot.”

Still, optimism prevailed amongst others that the tide will turn when LoVett returned. One optimistically shared, “With LoVett playing, no one in the Big East wants to face us.”

Three Takeaways

Falling in love with jump shots

The team seems to be falling in love with taking jump shots including many three point shots. Of concern is having Owens and Clark taking so many jumpers away from the rim that they are not in position to hit the offensive boards. There was little low post offensive game except for five minutes in the middle of the second half by Kassoum Yakwe (see below).

In contrast, DePaul set Marin Maric up deep with back to basket on almost every set and worked their offense around him, setting screen after screen for his teammates, particularly Max Strus. Red Storm defenders were running all around trying to stay with their man, who Maric often found open. After passing the ball out, he would spin towards the offensive board and establish position for an offensive rebound when needed.

No one on the Red Storm played such a role. It is not their style, but the Johnnies felt the effects of not having a strong post presence in the game.

Boxing Out?

The Red Storm provide good help defense as Owens and Yakwe, in particular, are always ready to assist when a teammate is broken down by an opponent. The result, at times, is a spectacular block.

During the game today there may have been too much help defense. A Blue Demon would drive to the basket and find himself quickly confronted by two or three Johnnies leaving other Blue Demons free for not only unopposed jump shots but also free to roll towards the offensive glass establishing positioning for easy rebounds and putbacks.

Ahmed and Yakwe

St. John’s has had good players work hard and increase their performance to become exceptional during their senior year. Will Bashir Ahmed follow in the footsteps of players like Sir`Dominic Pointer?

Ahmed’s 21 point, seven rebound performance today led the Red Storm. Just as significant was the fact that he had no turnovers in 30 minutes of play.

Kassoum Yakwe displayed better hands than last year, when he often fumbled passes. He has improved his free throw shooting. He is small for a power forward but athletic. For a short time in the second half he demonstrated a game in the low post so much needed by the Johnnies, using speed not power to attack the basket.

A fan summarized, “Maybe this is Yakwe’s coming out game”. Hopefully, it is.

Outlook

It is hard to be optimistic after today’s performance. Coming up is a winnable game against Georgetown, who lost by 24 points at home to Creighton today, then a prime-time game against Villanova on Saturday.

Fans often ask: when is Marcus Lovett returning?

We do not know. It was good to see him being a part of the team in warmups this afternoon. If we take Yakwe’s performance as suggesting he can become a productive part of the rotation then some of the needed support may be present. LoVett, of course, is an additional bonus when he returns.

The optimist states... with these two are fully involved in the rotation St. John’s is a team no one wants to face in the Big East tournament.

The more realistic person states… one game at a time, there are almost two months left in the season to dig out from the dirt, but it is hard to be optimistic tonight.