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Three takeaways: St. John’s defeat Maryville Saints in tune-up

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Hope is seen in 2018, but the team has progress to make in the early season.

Wendell Cruz

Before the St. John’s/ Maryville game (a 71-57 win) began, fans shared their expectations for the upcoming season, which ranged from cautious optimism to “this is the year”. Some fans added that even a deep run in the NIT tournament would not be enough for the Johnnies coaching staff to retain their support. The general consensus was that a spot in the NCAA tournament with at least one win is needed for the program to move forward.

With that in mind, last night’s performance was certainly a “tune-up”, and for a season that comes with high expectations, there were many aspects of the Red Storm’s game that needed tuning.

When asked what improvements would fans be looking for this season, three-point shooting and three-point defense were on the top of the list.

Observant fans from last year recalled the challenge of covering the three-point shooter, specifically those setting up in the corners. Fans were aware that this year’s team, at least on paper, looks deeper. So the expectation was that it the team would provide more consistent defensive pressure than in the past.

One fan in particular shared his optimism at the reported play of L.J. Figueroa. It was interesting that he highlighted Figueroa over the more publicized transfers or other newcomers to the team... but he had a point.

First half observations

Sedee Keita won the tip and became the focus of the offense at the onset of the game. Justin Simon fed him in the low post for a turnaround drive and layup, the first points of the game.

For the next four minutes most offensive possessions included a feed into Keita. Sometimes he took a shot and other times he adeptly passed out to other Johnnies for open shots. Three minutes into the game a Ponds’ steal and pass to Marvin Clark led to a dunk. At the five minute mark, a put back by Figueroa made the score 6-3 St. John’s.

St. John’s was playing tight defense and built an 11-3 lead on a three pointer by Bryan Trimble Jr. But soon after, the Saints hit three consecutive threes and the Johnnies lead dropped to 13-12 at the 10:31 mark. A time-out was called.

The fan, who was concerned about the Johnnies three point defense, expressed concern as a pattern seen last year was emerging:

  • A Maryville player would drive towards the basket and one or more Red Storm players would leave their man to provide support.
  • The Maryville driver would then pass off to the open player, usually in the corner, who would have an undefended shot.

During the first half the Johnnies went into a full court press after some made baskets. This resulted in only one steal but it did disrupt the Saints’ offense as, on several occasions, they began setting their offense up with 15 seconds to shoot.

Ponds was playing a role of distributor at the beginning of the game and did not score until near the end of the half. The Johnnies led 30-26 at the half. The Johnnies offensive performance in the first half could best be described as lots of ball movement with the execution a bit off.

Second half observations

Justin Simon became more involved in the second half scoring. He was featured midway through the half when it was clear that he had a height advantage over the Maryville player guarding him. When he wasn’t scoring on drives to the basket, he was dishing off to teammates for open shots.

The score remained close until Clark hit a three from the top of the circle for a 40-39 St. John’s lead. It was the beginning of a 12-0 run over the next four minutes.

Just when the Johnnies seemed to be pulling away, the Saints responded with their own run and suddenly it was a two point lead, 54 to 52.

One fan commented “We shoot too many threes for a team that does not shoot threes well.”

At the 3:30 mark Figueroa hit an open three on a nice feed from Ponds and fans began expressing admiration for his skills as he was the leading scorer on the team. Shortly thereafter, Simon was set up for a nice, smooth long two-point jump shot from the left corner and the Johnnies led by nine on the way to a 71-57 victory.

Three Takeaways

Ball movement was good

The Johnnies were impressive in how they shared the ball. Of 30 field goals there were 17 assists, led by Justin Simon and Shamorie Ponds with six assists each.

There was little one on one play even by those skilled enough to do so. Sedee Keita showed some offensive skills though, at times, his moves looked a little ragged. Experience should help him refine his drives to the basket. He did impress on his ability to pass out, from the post to an open shooter. This is a segment of the offense that was not seen on a regular basis in past years.

Shamorie Ponds made several nice passes off drives to the basket, mostly to the corner setting up teammates for open shots. Justin Simon did the same.

In addition, on a couple of occasions, after a timeout, the Johnnies executed an inbound pass to perfection leading to a dunk or a layup.

Defending the three

In the first fifteen minutes of the game, Maryville did not score a two-point field goal or make a free throw. But they did hit four threes, keeping them in the game.

Out of fairness to the Johnnies’ defense the Saints had some outstanding shooters on the team (likely more experienced at shooting well than, say, the guards who play for Loyola-Maryland). Some of these three-point shots were from well past the three-point line with a Red Storm defender extending a hand to their face.

But other times the shooter was wide open in the corner.

After one string of successful Maryville three-point attempts, Coach Mullin substituted a smaller lineup and, for a few minutes, this lineup stifled the Saints’ attempts. It was good to see the defenders tighten up when extra effort was need.

Despite having a core of players returning, molding a team defense with several newcomers takes time and the bursts of good defensive pressure lead to optimism that a fluid defense will emerge.

We often think fluidity is a necessity for an offense but it is also needed for a successful defense. Time and hard work in practice will, we expect, correct the moments of indecision on defense which resulted in opponents receiving open looks, particularly from three-point distance.

This team is not fundamentally flawed on defense; they can do better.

L. J. Figueroa makes up for the freshman recruiting misses?

Before the game two fans expressed disappointment that so many talented high school players placed the Johnnies on the last four or last five list only to choose another school.

The emergence of L.J. Figueroa, at least for this game, put some of that disappointment at rest. Not only did Figueroa lead the team in scoring, hitting seven out of nine field goal attempts, he rebounded, blocked shots and provided the highlight moment of the day, a put back dunk off a teammate’s miss midway through the second half.

The challenge of performing as well against stronger Big East teams awaits but today’s performance indicated the potential he has.

Of interest, of course, is that the Red Storm played none of their freshmen in the exhibition game — to get the core of the team playing well, first? Because the freshmen were not ready to play yet?

Conclusion

The Johnnies displayed skills and a willingness to play as a team. Players looked to set up teammates as much as they looked for their own shots. The execution was ragged at times but had some smooth stretches, and the potential for solid combination plays (Ponds to Keita for alley-oops, for example).

The fact that, after timeouts, the team buckled down on defense and focused on specific tasks successfully, such as contesting the Saint’s three point shooting more intensely, suggests that improvement can be anticipated.

Adding Mustapha Heron, who was unable to play due to suffering a concussion, to this mix will upgrade the team in all aspects as he is a skilled scorer, rebounder and defender.

For the Red Storm hope is seen in 2018, but questions about execution still abound. But this could be a promising year, even if the expected preseason blowout did not happen.