St. John’s struggled with various obstacles last season, but perhaps no obstacle was bigger than their lack of depth.
Often playing with just a six man rotation (with Kassoum Yakwe and Amar Alibegovic buried on the pine and a couple of walk-ons in case of emergency), foul trouble was nothing to flirt with. In some games, it cost them directly as guys fouled out. In other games, it still cost them, even without the foul trouble.
“You don’t really think about it,” Marvin Clark said about fatigue during the games, “but I’d be lying to you if I told you I didn’t feel it. It’s definitely under-looked, and it’ll definitely prove to be valuable for this program [to have depth].”
Riding a team’s best players is nothing new, but St. John’s took that concept to new levels. Offseason transfers, pro departures, and the choice to bring in sit-out transfers left the team thin to begin with; a pair of surprise departures left the Red Storm short-handed.
Last season, five out of nine St. John’s players logged 86% of the team’s minutes. For some perspective, six out of 14 guys played 85% of Villanova’s minutes. Shamorie Ponds played for 40 or more minutes in 10 games last year; Justin Simon and Clark had nine games combined at 40 or more minutes.
Only two major conference teams played fewer bench minutes than St. John’s: Boston College and Syracuse.
Despite the heavy minutes, St. John’s had one of the better defenses in the country. They held teams in the Big East to just 72.6 points last year, good for third best in the conference, while holding teams to the lowest FG%. They led the conference in steals (8.5) and blocked shots (5.2), all while evading foul trouble.
In tempo-neutral numbers during conference play, the Johnnies had the sixth-best defensive points per possession (1.07), the top turnover forced percentage (20.1%), the top block percentage (13.5% of opponent shots) and the top two-point defense (48.2% shooting allowed).
Their defense, however, was heavily anchored by two player-skills which are no longer with the team: Bashir Ahmed’s versatility and Tariq Owens’ shot blocking.
While Justin Simon will continue wreaking havoc in the passing lanes, coming off a season in which he led the conference in steals per game, Owens’ shoes will be a lot harder to fill.
“I definitely talked to [Owens] a lot,” said Sedee Keita, entering his first season with the Johnnies after redshirting last year. “I picked his brain and I found out all the little things that he learned.”
Keita knows he’s a different player, with different skills. He is confident in his mobility, and in not trying to be the shot blocker that Owens, now with Texas Tech, was for St. John’s.
Keita says he has focused on “guarding on the ball and switching a little bit. I’m focusing on walling up a lot. It’s easy to get into foul trouble trying to go for every block. I’m just learning how to be strong and [be a wall], affecting shots that way.”
Despite the additional bodies, foul trouble is still a point of focus, as the team looks to play with more intensity and faster pace.
The coaching staff has made it clear that the team will be pressing a lot more, building on their defensive edge from last year, using the strength of their roster.
St. John’s looks to have the desired talent, experience and depth to put a better product on the floor. It’s on Mullin and his staff to piece it together. The team knows that having depth goes a long way to fulfilling this team’s promise.
“[Depth] helps a lot. Last year, playing with only 6-7 guys sometimes, you just knew you had to play almost 40 minutes a game,” added Clark. “You knew you were going to make mistakes and there was nothing you could really do about it.
“But this year, being able to play an efficient 25-30 minutes a game, knowing you could really play and tire yourself out and somebody else is going to be able to come in have your back is a great feeling.”