The year 2020 just hits different, and so does the basketball season.
There is a St. John’s basketball game tomorrow at 7 pm in Carnesecca Arena, part of a two-game set pairing the Johnnies with Saint Peter’s and LaSalle.
Teams are preparing to play opponents when they have played no scrimmages, when they are more remote from their fellow classmates, in a season where any matchup could change at the last minute after COVID tests. But basketball is happening. And, St. John’s is not one of the dozens of teams that have taken a pause due to COVID testing and 14-day quarantine — meant to stop the spread between teams.
Sure, there are matchups that just will not happen. On the other hand, since the NCAA’s teams have chosen to keep playing, keeping the virus from spreading from healthy kids who will bounce back to people who will not fare as well fighting off the coronavirus is a good thing.
For the St. John’s Red Storm, a team that had a very good non-conference season but struggled to 5-13 in conference play, there are a number of on-court questions, as well.
The team will play fast, look for turnovers and early offense, while maintaining possessions. But this is also a team that struggled to keep opponents off the offensive boards, shot extremely poorly inside the arc, and did not take many three-pointers (while allowing many three attempts).
The rebounding problem can be mitigated, but has been a component of a number of Mike Anderson’s teams. The shooting — and the inability to get to the free throw line — were a departure from what the experienced coach has been able to coax out of his teams.
Can this team find consistent offense?
Big talent losses; who steps in?
The Red Storm squad returns from a long break with many regulars back in the fold, but missing three highly influential players. The losses of LJ Figueroa (transferred to Oregon), Mustapha Heron (graduated) and Nick Rutherford (graduated) are hard to understate.
Figueroa and Heron entered last season as the team’s main offense. The two took more than 50% of the team’s shots while on the floor, played heavy minutes, and were the two best perimeter shooters on a team that struggled to score on both sides of the arc.
The likely outcome of the loss of Figueroa and Heron — both of whom struggled mightily in the role of the offensive focal point — is that the team will simply function differently.
On Mike Anderson’s Arkansas teams, three or so perimeter players shared the ball fairly equally around action based off of a mobile big man — Bobby Portis, Moses Kingsley, Daniel Gafford.
Isaih Moore, the incoming 6’10” JUCO big man, is slimmer than those players (listed at 205 pounds); coming from junior college, has a lot to prove. But Moore is the athletic and energetic forward that could make the offense click in the way Mike Anderson likes to run his teams. And given his ability to finish viciously inside and shoot from deep, Moore could be key to elevating this offense and creating
Could the newcomers step into the big hole?
Shooter Vince Cole, a 6’6” junior college star who was a smooth scorer from outside the arc, inside the arc and the line, will have his chances, especially if the ball movement is good. Freshman Posh Alexander could have the kind of minutes and opportunities to earn all-freshman team honors in the Big East. His size, energy, and talent will give the Johnnies a player who could step into the volume scoring role.
Could a replacement on offense come from within?
That is a tall ask from the team’s core. Greg Williams Jr. is likely to take more possessions, but has been a smart, deliberate player who does not do a lot of shot-hunting.
Julian Champagnie, the star forward as a freshman, may expand his game a bit, but it is hard to see him hunting shots or sizing up opponents off the dribble.
Marcellus Earlington already is a high-usage scorer. He may keep it up — though consistency is an issue — but that will not be enough to fill in what the Johnnies miss. David Caraher and Josh Roberts are solid players who play a role, and do not look to be the ones to take a lot more shots.
Rasheem Dunn could take on a larger role, but his offense was inconsistent to solely depend on. He does, however, draw fouls and create offense. If he and Alexander can get to the line — or, even better, get to the line and create opportunities that get OTHERS to the line — the offense will be vastly improved.
Most likely, Dunn, Williams and Alexander will share scoring equally, Moore will get transition and pick and roll buckets, while Champagnie and Earlington look for their shots as inside. Will that be enough?
Can Cole, Williams and Caraher shoot consistently enough to keep defenses from packing the paint? The team’s two best shooters, by a lot, were Heron (38% on threes) and Figueroa (36% on threes). Greg Williams Jr. shot 34% — decent — and the other five players who shot threes were below 33%, aka the replacement level where the shot attempt is worth less than a point.
There is a lot of room for improvement.
This team runs on defense
Defensively, Alexander and Dunn, along with point guard Jonathan McGriff and Dylan Wusu will need to fill the role that Nick Rutherford had — the attack point for the pressure defense — which may be an even taller task.
That role makes the Red Storm effective — generating chaos, pushing the pace, forcing turnovers that lead to easy shots. The combination of anticipation, strength and quickness of Rutherford is hard to replace — and key to making the rest of the team effective in their pressure defense roles.
The Johnnies will depend on grad transfer Arnoldo Toro to play with Isaih Moore and Josh Roberts to defend the paint and rebound, a point of weakness last season at times. Roberts, in particular, was a special shot blocker and a strong rebounder while able to keep up running the floor.
With some more help inside, the Red Storm defense should be able to keep the pressure on interior scorers, improving on the 52% shooting allowed inside the arc in league play, last in the Big East.
Keys to the season
For the Johnnies to have a strong season...
- The team needs to find consistent, reliable offensive production from the system, not just a star. The interior offense will be key, as will sharing the ball well and making open shots.
- Will the team keep opponents honest on defense? Can some combination of players extend defenses with the three-point threat?
- Can the team maintain the defensive intensity of last season? While the team as a whole is more veteran, the point guards — critical to the team pressure — are younger.