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Red Storm season in review: achievement or disappointment?

A look at what went right and went wrong for the Johnnies.

Ponds gets up against Seton Hall
Wendell Cruz

An acquaintance who works around college basketball was trying to get to the heart of the strange feeling around St. John’s (or at least some of St. John’s fans).

From the view of the one-bid, two-bid conferences, seeing a team that has enjoyed very little sustained success make the NCAA Tournament and win 21 games seems like a breakthrough.

The Red Storm, in Chris Mullin’s fourth year, went 21-13, 8-10 in conference, 1-1 in the Big East Tournament, 0-1 in the NCAA Tournament.

But given high expectations, along with a soft non-conference schedule and a solid Big East lacking top-level squads as in years past, it feels like a disappointment to finish under .500 in conference.

Given the way that February was set up to get St. John’s a nine-seed, it feels like a disappointment to make the NCAA Tournament as the final team in.

Given the way that longstanding problems were not alleviated by new personnel? Feels like a disappointment.

But those overall numbers are pretty solid, and the Johnnies won some thrilling, tough games along the way.

In review

The story is that the team might have met reasonable expectations, but the Red Storm left people wanting more, thinking about what could have been.

Consider that the league’s coaches predicted St. John’s would finish fourth by a solid margin (and Providence was predicted to finish third).

St. John’s finished seventh — but one game out of third place, and one game out of last place.

The conference played very even, leaving room for a St. John’s team that went 3-5 against the two top teams in the conference, but 2-7 against the teams below them in league play.

Is finishing one game off of a predicted finish a failure?

The team gave the fans some exciting moments in non-conference and conference play. Warning signs, maybe, came early.

LJ Figueroa scoring against Cal
Wendell Cruz

The Johnnies struggled to put away lower-level opponents in the first halves of games. They had to claw to win against Bowling Green, VCU and Cal.

But in almost every game, the inability to really defend (or attack) inside was a struggle. Tossing talented wings like Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa (and Marvin Clark II) to defend inside took its toll, contributing to a parade of foul shots for opponents and missed defensive rebounding opportunities.

Not finding a way to get better shots at the rim took its toll, as well. As did not moving the ball better for open shots.

But the team was no conference bottom-feeder, despite being unable to win more than two games in a row. That inability to get separation left them wallowing with Butler, DePaul, Providence and Georgetown, other teams that could not string together winning streaks.

The resurgence of Shamorie Ponds’ jumpshot, plus the additions of Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa made the team better. Marvin Clark’s shooting took a step back, but his defensive rebounding improved.

Wendell Cruz

On the other hand, Mikey Dixon, the Quinnipiac transfer, left mid-season to find more playing time. The incoming freshmen saw intermittent time on the court.

Sedee Keita and Bryan Trimble Jr. logged minutes but could not carve out solid roles for themselves in areas of need — defensive rebounding/ post-play and shooting, respectively.

The issues for the Johnnies in ending opponent possessions has been one that’s endured through Chris Mullin’s tenure.

That issue came to the fore late in the season, as St. John’s faced two of the league’s most physical sides (Providence and Xavier) twice each in February. DePaul, being the third most-physical team, also had their way with the Johnnies.

Those losses — to two teams that ended tied at the bottom of the league standings and a third that was at the bottom for much of the season— hurt the image of the team, and hurt their NCAA Tournament hopes.

Personnel has been a big issue; Mullin has been seeking bigs who can run, but hasn’t found a big who can run and stay on the court and defend on his own in the paint. (Tariq Owens could alter shots and run, but was not a defensive rebounding or post defense force).

This was thought to be an issue going into the season, and the bench and newcomers did not help as much as hoped.

Late in the season, Josh Roberts logged promising minutes, while Marcellus Earlington looked to be an intriguing player who could score inside.

At the core, however, Coach Mullin and his staff rode their main players through thick and thin, trusting in them more than the newcomers to deliver the Johnnies and execute the game plan.

Style Points

Maybe this team is just what they have always been — a team that hopes to win by forcing turnovers, spreading opponents out and attacking, while not rebounding on defense and sending other teams to the line.

Giving up second chance points AND giving up free throw trips makes the margin of error very thin on defense. When a team can keep opponents from scoring inside the arc, that style can be ok.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Providence Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

When they can’t... the defense struggles, and the offense needs to do a lot of heavy lifting.

St. John’s was quick in terms of offensive possession (12th nationally in shortest possession length) and good at making opponents work for their offense (27th in length of defensive possession).

On offense

  • Like the previous year, they choose not to attack the offensive glass.
  • Despite the addition of Mustapha Heron, the team still depended on jump shots and got to the line infrequently (ratio of free throws attempted to field goals attempted of 28% vs 27% the previous year, both bottom three in the Big East).
  • The team shot better on three-pointers, but still 6th in the league, and 8th on two pointers, shooting around 50% like last year.
  • The Johnnies’ percentage of assisted shots remained 9th in the league, even as ball sharing improved (48% of shots assisted); the team remained sixth in percentage of three-pointers taken in a three-happy league (38% of shots from deep).

On defense

Josh Roberts and Greg Williams put their strength together to stop Tyrique Jones
Wendell Cruz
  • The Red Storm defense allowed 34% shooting on deep shots — far better than the 40% from the previous conference season.
  • And while the Red Storm were better at grabbing opponent misses overall, in Big East play, they were the worst in the league at ending opponent possessions with a rebound.
  • The Johnnies also gave up the highest ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts in the conference, by nearly four percentage points more than the closest foul-prone conference mate, Marquette. Marquette had Theo John and Ed Morrow as excuses; the Red Storm spread the wealth outside of the low-fouling Ponds.
  • The Red Storm allowed 48% shooting on twos last season against Big East foes, but 51% this season.
  • One area of (slight) improvement was in maintaining the percentage of three-pointers taken against the defense (from 43% to 42% overall in a three-point happy conference).
  • St. John’s also improved the percentage of assisted shots from 61% to 58% for opponents. Both numbers are bottom two in the league, and speak to a lack of disruption on defense. (Though that may be a choice; teams that are extreme in keeping opponents from assisting on shots also tend to avoid defensive pressure — except for Buffalo.)
  • In both years, the defense was ranked sixth in the league. In fact, this year’s defense was better, by points per possession given up, than last year’s. BUT. Nationally, the Red Storm defense went from 29th, giving up 96 points to a statistically average opponent by KenPom’s adjusted metrics, to 105th, giving up 101 points per 100 possessions.

Three Up

Non-conference wins. Yes, the non-conference schedule was filled with beatables, outside of Duke and VCU. But in previous years, St. John’s struggled to execute in tight games late. In this season, the late game execution — helped by human cheat code Shamorie Ponds [see: 16 points in the second half vs Bowling Green, the VCU game, the Cal game, Georgia Tech] was solid early on.

Player standouts. Ponds, assisted by better scoring talent, shined for St. John’s. His three-point stroke was much better than in his sophomore year, he was a very good passer. LJ Figueroa was a difference making — not only by being a skilled scorer, but by being a reliable defensive rebounding force, forcing some turnovers while not needing to handle the ball. Justin Simon was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year after some strong lock down performances.

Made the NCAA Tournament. Yes, of course, the Johnnies could have been a higher seed, more healthy, won more of their February games. But this team made the NCAA Tournament.

St. John’s v Arizona State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

For fun, what we wrote before the season ended up being prescient, except for the in-conference record:

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.

12-1 in non-conference? Check. 11 seed? Check. Did Duke take out some aggression? Check. Was moving up from the bottom of the league harder than expected? Check.

Did St. John’s get to 10-8 in conference? Neg.

Three Down

So selfish, Xavier player
Wendell Cruz

They are who we thought they were? Some like to focus on specific games, the final record, or the performance in the final game. But maybe this is pretty much what St. John’s was this year: a flawed team, one that could be schemed against, and a team that didn’t have enough magic from the sidelines or players to overcome their built-in flaws.

The Red Storm were, per the numbers, a lot of the same, even with the influx of talent. The team was great at not turning the ball over and aggressive at forcing turnovers.

Lack of interior play. And then there is the elephant in the room, which speaks to personnel.

It turns out that one departing player, Tariq Owens, was very important to covering up some flaws, and keeping the Johnnies’ interior defense highly competitive.

The thing is, Owens on his own was already an issue for St. John’s. At Texas Tech, he’s paired with a big who can handle the banging and rebound on the defensive end (Owens’ defensive rebounding is just where it was with St. John’s). At St. John’s, the big in the center needs to both rebound and alter shots and be a matchup problem.

This year, that role fell again to Marvin Clark II, who, playing out of position, was game but gave up inches and strength.

The bench. So, St. John’s, per KenPom’s rankings, was 347th in bench minutes last year.

This year, with more players available, St. John’s was 347th in bench minutes this year.


The more things change...

A lot of bench play does not equal success, no. But given the late-season defense, which went from “good enough” to one of the nation’s worst defenses in the last month of the season, maybe a different look would have helped?

Or maybe the personnel problem was a problem all along.

This was thought to be an issue going into the season, as we said, and it continues into next season.

It was a decent season — but not the one that seemed possible in late December, when the team was one of the last undefeated squads in the country.

The way the year ended — gasping for wins to get the last spot in the NCAA Tournament, then being outmuscled for a half against a mediocre Arizona State team with many of the same execution flaws — leaves a strange taste in the mouths of all who spent the year watching the team.

(For those of you who watched and commented with us, by the way, A HUGE THANK YOU for making our community and keeping it growing.)

[Coming up, we will have player-by-player breakdowns, plus a look at what’s on tap next year.]