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Ready for Big East play? The Johnnies have defensive warning signs

Is the Red Storm defense ready for the Big East?

HoopHall Miami Invitational Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Starting on Sunday against Wagner, St. John’s has three warm up games before heading into conference play. And in that time, they hope to get Sedee Keita close to back (one would hope before the Seton Hall game) and improve the defense, because right now, St. John’s has the second-worst defense, adjusted for opponent strength, in the Big East.

Taken from Bart Torvik’s site of opponent-normalized and tempo-free stats:

Ideally, a team would find itself in the upper-right quadrant. The diagonals mark the overall efficiency margin by levels, which is to say that a team with a really good offense (farther right on the bottom axis) can get away with having a poorer defense (lower on the left axis).

St. John’s may have the second-best offense in the conference so far... but is also sporting the second-worst defense.

These numbers are estimates. The Big East teams have not played the same opponents, and the Red Storm’s opponents could be better than currently “ranked”. Or they could be worse.

Oft-discussed around St. John’s among the fans is a pesky issue with the Red Storm three-point-defense, though, and that real issue is the driver behind these defensive numbers.

The defensive rebounding has been spectacular compared to what would be expected from starting four guards and a small forward. Marvin Clark II has been capable at ending opponent possessions, and LJ Figueroa has been a defensive rebounding revelation, albeit against a weak schedule and some fairly small teams.

The Red Storm have been decent at stifling two-point shooting, and have continued to force steals at a high rate.

But allowing teams to take 44% of their shots from outside of the arc while mostly playing man-to-man defense (and those opponents making 37% of those shots) is a problem.

The next three games will be a chance for the Johnnies to figure out how to switch in ways that do not allow shooters an open moment to balance, bend the legs, and launch the shot. A chance to figure out how to hurry opposing passers. A chance to figure out how to deflect passes to the shooters in the corner.

The return of Keita could help; with Keita in the middle, the team may choose to switch less and allow each player to simply chase their man. But four years of Chris Mullin’s tenure has had a unifying theme of uptempo offense, and a defense that allows opponents to comfortably shoot three-pointers.

For example, while the game against Princeton was a 15-point win, at various times when the game looked to be locked away, the Tigers made runs of 12-4 (in the first half) and 10-0 (in the second half) powered largely by three-pointers, to make a blowout competitive.

In 2016 and 2017, the Johnnies under Mullin managed reduce the percentage of shots opponents took from deep. Can they get back to that? Or can they win despite foes racking up bunches of points from outside the arc?