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St. John’s season preview: is this the year Chris Mullin’s Red Storm get to the NCAA Tournament?

Are the dark clouds gone? Can this talented roster elevate the team into major postseason play? Predictions, schedule, a poll on the season.

Wendell Cruz

The 2018-19 season comes with anticipation for Chris Mullin’s fourth year at St. John’s. Star guard Shamorie Ponds earns national recognition in the preseason (named Preseason Player of the Year in the Big East, landing on some national end-of-season award watch lists).

An all-Big East level player in Mustapha Heron has transferred from Auburn and is eligible to play.

Two talented stars in Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II return for another season.

And the Johnnies’ yearly influx of transfers brings in a big man in Sedee Keita who saw little time at South Carolina.

Still, assuming that the balls will roll out and the team will suddenly rack up wins is a big assumption.

The Red Storm enter the season with those five players, returnee Bryan Trimble Jr. and talented additions L.J. Figueroa and Mikey Dixon in the backcourt, plus freshmen Greg Williams Jr., Josh Roberts and Marcellus Earlington.

This team needs to not just elevate the good from last year — but become a new whole.

Defensive outlook

Last year’s St. John’s squad was very good in non-conference play on the defensive end. In Big East play, the team was less elite, but still good enough to alter what opponents wanted to do on good days.

When the team was on, they were good enough to slow the likes of Duke, Xavier, and Villanova enough to keep games within winning distance.

A huge factor in that defense, however, was the now-departed Tariq Owens, who rebounded decently, but altered interior shots on an elite level.

By the numbers, St. John’s was very good at making opponents miss inside the arc (foes made 48% of shots in Big East play, lowest in the league) and forcing turnovers (on 20% of possessions, also best in the Big East). The Red Storm also forced opponents to work deeper into the shot clock than teams may have liked.

Those are excellent starting points.

But the counter is that the team allowed second chance points and got burnt from the perimeter.

The Johnnies’ interior defensive skills forced teams outside with great success — opponents took 43% of their shots from outside the arc (36th worst in the country), made 37% of their outside shots (55th worst in the country), and those teams assisted on 59% of their shots (39th worst mark in Division I).

St. John’s also rebounded poorly on the defensive end (not just in conference play, either), allowing 32% of opponent missed shots to be rebounded and giving teams extra chances to score.

To rebuild the defense, the Red Storm will count on:

Sedee Keita’s size as a different look. Keita will need to provide a strong rebounding, space-holding force inside, without fouling himself off of the floor. For the Red Storm to be successful, look for stronger rebounding numbers, decent shot blocking, but better post defense.

Pressure defense. With players who are deft at snatching balls from ballhandlers in Justin Simon and Shamorie Ponds, look for the Johnnies to find a few other players who tilt the action on defense. Bryan Trimble Jr. is a willing defender, and L.J. Figueroa is long and looks to make plays. But another player needs to step up and make the defense relentless.

Extend the defense/ disrupt in the halfcourt. The team has the length and hopefully, the depth, to put more pressure on opposing offenses’ outside shooting. Because with the three-point weapon, any team can get back into the game.

LJ Figueroa defends on Sedee Keita in the post
Wendell Cruz

Offensive outlook

Last year’s team took a large step back on offense, with three-point attempts declining, three-point accuracy falling, a drop in the percentage of assisted shots and free throw attempts drawn declining. All of those are aspects of a good modern offense, and the Johnnies only saving grace last season was an excellent ability to end their possessions in a shot (rather than a turnover).

Ball protection is a great first step, and credit here to Shamorie Ponds, who merged a very high usage rate with fairly low turnovers, while also assisting on nearly 30% of his teammates’ shots.

But this year’s offense needs more cohesion, more aggression, better outside shooting, In the ten-team Big East, last season’s offense was:

  • 9th in the Big East (thanks, DePaul!), coupled with
  • the 9th place offensive rebounding percentage (a choice that likely helps the team get back on defense),
  • the 7th place 2-point shooting percentage (just under 50%),
  • the 6th best rate of three-pointers as a percentage of the offense from the field (35%),
  • the 8th best three-point shooting percentage (34%),
  • and the 8th best ratio of free throws to field goals (27%).

This season, the Johnnies will need:

Better outside shooting from Shamorie Ponds. After shooting 31% in Big East play as a freshman, Ponds shot 25% for the season from outside the arc (improving to 29% in Big East play). Whatever the changes that need to be made — much of which will be shot selection and NOT having to take the reins of the offense on every possession — Ponds will need to set the offensive tone by once again being the efficient scoring machine he was a freshman, where he took 26% of the team’s shots, not 34% like in Big East play last season.

Infinite attacking without turnovers. With Mustapha Heron and Justin Simon, the Red Storm have two attacking players who can really reshape the team’s offensive profile, by getting to the free throw line and creating attention that will free up shooters. But both players will need to be careful of not making mistakes that hand the ball over. In early going (the scrimmage and the preseason game), turnovers look like an aspect for concern for Sedee Keita as well.

Ball movement/ spreading the wealth. For years, this St. John’s team under Chris Mullin has looked to model the squad after the aggressive, outside-in offense of the Golden State Warriors. To achieve this, St. John’s needs to not just move the ball (which is essential), and not just to actually hit more shots (with bench players like Figueroa, Dixon, Trimble and Williams chipping in), but also to be crisp in their passing, preparation to shoot, footwork, vision and timing on offense.


Mikey Dixon at Red Storm Tip-Off
Wendell Cruz

This season, the Johnnies should have a strong starting five (likely Keita/ Clark/ Simon/ Heron/ Ponds) with L. J. Figueroa, who may be a big-time scorer, Mikey Dixon and Bryan Trimble Jr., who could be strong scoring contributors as well.

Will the freshmen get run? The two forwards, Marcellus Earlington and Josh Roberts, have not played in either the secret scrimmage nor in the exhibition game. Guard Greg Williams did not play in the exhibition.

Their contributions might not make or break the team, but each could give valuable breaks for the starters — and they will need to elevate their roles next season.

In any case, last season was undone by both a lack of bodies and by not having players who could capably play a few minutes behind the main rotation. Will that issue continue this season?

Outlook/ predictions

This should be the team the fans, and the staff is waiting for.

Marvin Clark goes airborne
Wendell Cruz

The question is whether the pieces can come together and get rolling by the time Big East play comes around — and from there, what the ceiling is for this team.

The non-conference schedule isn’t strong, so the Red Storm will need to perform well in Big East play for postseason consideration. The team will face a Big East that seems weakened, but given the experience of the league’s coaches, the solid recruiting and some good systems, moving up from the bottom of the league could prove harder than expected.

Prediction is for St. John’s to actually go 12-1 in non-conference play. We are expecting Duke to take out some aggressions on the Red Storm at Cameron. A blip against Georgia Tech or Rutgers could happen. But even last year’s St. John’s squad took care of the non-conference games where they were the more highly-rated team going in, and this year’s schedule.

Outside of Princeton, and possibly Wagner and Bowling Green, and the Legends Classic teams, particularly Temple, the Red Storm should be able to fend off their opponents.

In conference play, the Johnnies will compete but end up with a 10-8 record. The prediction here is that the team will get into the NCAA Tournament, with a 10 or 11 seed.

What are your bold predictions? What fixes does the team need to make to get better this season?


How many games will St. John’s win in conference play?

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