With a win over Villanova last night to break into the win column in the Big East, maybe Chris Mullin’s team is over the hump — though they are still in last place in the Big East.
The joy of the moment overshadows the enormity of what has happened over the last month to the St. John’s season. What has changed for the Red Storm? Is it sustainable? Should we assign fault?
Let’s take a moment to applaud the students on campus for putting together a solid postgame celebration for when St. John’s came back to campus.
That’s a solid show of support, and that means something for the players, and for the fans who want to get interested in becoming lifelong
sufferers fans of St. John’s men’s basketball.
But back to the original question.
How did this turn season turn from “losing to DePaul at home” to “beating Villanova on the road”?
Staying the course
Head coach Chris Mullin will tell you nothing has changed.
Speaking about last night’s game in the Big East conference call this afternoon, he said that “It was very similar to a lot of the games that we had been losing, but we just made some big plays, some free throws.”
Mullin continued, after being asked about whether the close loss to Xavier was an inspiration, “the one thing that did help was we were close and it wasn’t debatable. We were in probably seven two-possession games. When you looked at the film, it wasn’t necessarily the last two minutes. It was possessions throughout the whole game that we didn’t capitalize on.”
Yes, there were possessions where the team did not value the points, when every point is precious for the team as currently constructed, in a way that it may not be for many other teams (who have explosive players on the bench).
In response to losing a possession here and a possession there, the team has cut the rotation tightly, to the starters and Bryan Trimble Jr. The team was able to do that because Marvin Clark II and Bashir Ahmed stayed out of foul trouble, allowing them to stay on the floor. Kassoum Yakwe and Amar Alibegovic combined for five minutes in the past two games, all against Duke.
It’s a smart choice, but it’s also a choice that was made in games earlier in the season. Since the DePaul game, Bryan Trimble Jr. has logged 20 or more minutes in seven of nine games, and upwards of 14 minutes in the other two contests.
Trimble is clearly the first man off the bench, but foul trouble from others has forced more playing time for Yakwe and Alibegovic, who have had flashes but are clearly less effective on this team than the starters.
Shamorie Ponds, in particular, has played more under control. And he has been a more credible three-point shooter in the last three games, shooting 9/20 from beyond the arc, and far better inside it than against Butler and Creighton. [More on that here.]
The shot choices have improved. We are seeing less “I’m on the perimeter, why not” and better, more thoughtful ball movement, movement into the paint and back out.
Meanwhile, the starters contributed against Villanova, making it hard to key in on just Ponds or Justin Simon, whose jump shot comes and goes.
The team executed solidly throughout the game, never shying away from the moment, never displaying impostor syndrome.
The win over Villanova required the Red Storm to go through ten inbounding situations (in which they committed only one turnover) in the final minute and a half, and also required them to hit most of their free throws, not foul Villanova shooters on three-pointers, and generally keep their cool in a road game.
Perhaps that is from a mix of patience from the coaching staff and teaching on the errors the players made during the season.
The Red Storm shot 47% from outside the arc against Duke and 53% from deep against Villanova. That may not be sustainable, but it may also speak to better ball movement and better shot choices all around. Shamorie Ponds, in particular, is seeing a spike in his perimeter shooting that is welcome, especially as teams bring zone defenses to slow down his deft penetration skills.
Some of our readers have been beating a drum about the coaching, about how this whole experience has been terrible and the staff needs to be either removed or changed. Others have stuck with the party line of trusting the process.
Should St. John’s have won more Big East games?
Should the team have figured out their problems and found their flow earlier?
Possibly, but some teams do take a while to click. Usually, those teams don’t take loss after loss on the way there.
Should the process be trusted?
Personally, I’m not much into blind faith in the plans of other human beings. There are good ideas in the “process” but the execution certainly has some issues.
On the other hand, the team has been so close in so many games that the issues through the losing streak couldn’t help but look like they were fixable.
You might say there are at least seven more games in the season, including road games at Marquette and Providence and DePaul (who bodied St. John’s just a few weeks ago), plus home games against Butler and Seton Hall.
With that full month ahead in mind, there is no conclusion about the division in the fanbase about the current regime.
But at least St. John’s basketball is once again fun to argue about.