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Weekend outlook: St. John’s looking to improve pride in defense

Team in need of defensive improvements, efforts, surrendering the Me for the We

Greg Williams tries for two at the basket while Marcellus Earlington looks on
Wendell Cruz

The loss to the Creighton Bluejays on Thursday night was one that demonstrated that the team defensive concept was lacking. In the words of head coach Mike Anderson after the game:

“We are still trying to get the blue collar out of our basketball team; last year they took pride in our defense. All it takes is a weak link. Tonight it was a number of guys.

“We gotta get more physical and we gotta take more pride. We gotta win with our defense. Our defense has to be our calling card.”

Surrender the “Me” for the “We”

Hall of Fame Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson once said, “good teams become great teams when the members trust each other enough to surrender the Me for the We.” Coach Jackson then went on to say, “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”

How does this apply to the current Red Storm team?

Having lost three straight Big East games, and missing the disruptive defense of last season while leaning on newcomers for more than 40% of the team’s minutes, it is clear that the singular defensive team belief and communication need to be stronger.

The team is not as disruptive as last season, and is not able to make the windows of opportunity small. The defensive rebounding on Thursday— a critical component of ending the other team’s possessions, aka “defense” — was particularly not physical. There has been enough effort to get the team close in each loss, but not enough to take command of the game.

If learning to trust one another can make a good team great, then learning the same trust can make an average team good.

This is the challenge for both the coaching staff and the players.

Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander discuss
Wendell Cruz

The changes

The Johnnies brought back six players from last year. Four played a major role at the end of the last season when the Johnnies won three of their last four games.

Julian Champagnie has continued his productive play as the team’s leading scorer and rebounder.

Rasheem Dunn, injured in the team’s first game, is assimilating nicely as he returns. He has been decent with his midrange pull-up game and adds quickness with the ball.

Greg Williams has had productive games and his shooting percentages have been good, 48.5% from the field and 38.1% from three-point range.

Marcellus Earlington has been inconsistent with a couple of very productive games and others where his scoring has been minimal. He is third on the team in grabbing rebounds.

Returnees Josh Roberts and David Caraher have seen minimal action this year.

Meanwhile, five newcomers have played significant roles on the team. Junior College transfer Vince Cole played well at the beginning of the season but has struggled in the last three games against Big East competition.

Fellow Junior College transfer Isaih Moore has performed well on the offensive end and is second on the team in rebounds but has struggled defensively against taller, heftier opponents.

Graduate transfer Arnaldo Toro has averaged 10 minutes per game and has played spurts of good defense. He has shown flashes of nice spin moves with his back to the basket on offense, but has not been very involved/ effective in the offense.

Dylan Addae-Wusu goes against Creighton’s packed-in defense
Wendell Cruz

Two freshmen, Posh Alexander and Dylan Addae-Wusu, have performed admirably. The aggressive nature of their play makes them mistake-prone, though both look to have a bright future.

John McGriff, a redshirt freshman who was injured before the last game, is very quick and a good ball handler, able to put pressure on opposing guards.

Who are the leaders?

So how is this group of players developing as a team to “trust each other enough to surrender the Me for the We”? Meshing together the talents of new and old players during COVID-limited preseason has certainly been a challenge for the coaching staff.

The ability of the team to trust and become a “We” begins with the leadership on the team. Upperclassman Rasheem Dunn is the only returning senior, and has seen his minutes limited due to a concussion. Meanwhile, sophomore Julian Champagnie has emerged, speaking out during team huddles.

But on the floor, point guards are the leadership, the connection that helps create a team “we”. Posh Alexander has been effective, but there have been times that he has been too aggressive, trying to dribble through double teams and losing the ball. Other times he shows good court vision, snapping passes to Johnnies forwards going backdoor, when the opportunity arises.

John McGriff has had limited playing time but appears to be a “pass first” point guard. In order to bring the “we” out in the team they both need to be pass-first players, but also execute when they attack on their own.

The inside-out

Isaih Moore takes a jumper
Wendell Cruz

Not surprisingly, games that the Red Storm have been effective on offense are also ones with high assist-to-field goal percentage — including the Georgetown game. Against the team recognized Isaih Moore could consistently make plays deep in the paint. Recognizing a matchup — and players like Moore looking to play to a team strength instead of highlighting their offensive versatility — was a “we” moment.

There have been times that the Johnnies have worked off of the high post to some success. Both Moore and Arnoldo Toro have played this role, but the number of these sets were limited.

Both players made some nice pass offs to Johnnies cutting into the paint for layups. This kind of action — drawing defenses to guard the bigs and then looking for players like Greg Williams and Vince Cole to execute on catch and shoot plays — could be effective.

Chaos: good or bad?

This year’s Red Storm seem to run the same chaos on offense as they pursue on defense.

If not fast breaking, the team seems to struggle in sets, passing the ball quickly around the horn in hopes of finding a teammate free for an open jumper or a lane to attack the basket. Sometimes a weave motion is the play, which takes time off the shot clock and has led to rushed shots to avoid a time violation.

With most of the Johnnies guards being strong slashers to the rim, this pattern has had its moments of success but the players have not yet displayed the cohesion that comes from repetition — knowing when to pass, knowing when to pull up. Familiarity as to where a teammate is comfortable shooting from or beginning a drive to the basket is invaluable.

The matter of defense: Trust your teammates

Too often the Red Storm players are looking to step into passing lanes for steals to initiate fast breaks or to collapse when the ball goes inside to a forward deep in the paint. It has not

been uncommon to see three Johnnies would collapse leaving at least two opponents free and clear for easy shots.

While interceptions in passing lanes will allow breakouts and high percentage shots, this type defensive mindset also leaves opponents free for easy opportunities, especially if they can shoot from the corners. Against Rider, the game turned in the second half when the defense focused less on the passing lanes and more on close contact, man-to-man challenges to the long range shots by Rider so available earlier in the game.

When playing man-to-man, the team must focus on each’s assignment and trust that your teammates will do likewise.

Are the Red Storm moving forward?

Greg Williams drives
Wendell Cruz

Will the struggles at the beginning of the Big East calendar discourage the team or make them more determined? Even when losing by close to 20 points at the end of the Creighton game, the team continued to play hard.

Midway through the second half after the Johnnies once again turned the ball over Dunn, the senior, was seen clapping his hands cheering his teammates on to get ready on defense.

Can the Red Storm come together and move from a team where mistakes define them, to a team where the “we” concept pulls them to surprise wins?

Time will tell.