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Midyear report: hope arising for St. John’s as defense tightens

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Building character and hustle; Champagnie stars and freshmen bring hope

Wendell Cruz

If we divide the season’s 15 games into:

  • The five game nonconference schedule, during which the Johnnies went 5-1.
  • The first six games of the Big East schedule, during which St. Johns went 1-5, giving up an average of 86 points per game.
  • The next three games, commencing with the Butler winon January 12, during which the team gave up an average of 66 points per game and went 2-1.

After the Connecticut win, Coach Mike Anderson summarized, “we have been in so many close games, so many where we were right in a position to win it, and so confidence has to kick in…I personally feel that we can beat any team in the country, any team in our league. Now we are coming together a little bit more.”

Five of the Red Storm’s seven losses were single digit losses.

One loss was by three points to Georgetown in overtime. A closer loss came on January 16th to Marquette by two points after the Red Storm had erased an 11 point halftime deficit and took a one point lead with four minutes to go. A Julian Champagnie miss from the corner with less than a second to play would have made the Johnnies a winner.

Character

Coaches and fans like to talk about character. But for a basketball player, what is character?

It includes playing hard as a team, supporting each other whether on the court or riding the bench. It includes playing hard in practice when seeing limited action on the court.

It means not being discouraged after a game the team felt they should have won. It means not giving up when falling behind unexpectedly.

It means doing other things (rebounding, defense) to help the team when your shot is not going down.

All of these components of character (Resilience? Perseverance?) have been on display during the last three games of league play.

Wendell Cruz

Pressing Onward

Was the Connecticut road win a catalyst for the Johnnies?

Or was it the win against Butler, where the Johnnies defense stepped up and limited the Bulldogs to 57 points.

What happened with the defense?

First, the full court pressure defense was used but less frequently.

Posh Anderson, Rasheem Dunn and Dylan Addae-Wusu pressured the ball to slow opponents as they came across half court, and it was not uncommon for opponents to start their sets with fifteen to twenty seconds remaining on the shot clock. In almost every game this year the Johnnies have forced a 30 second violation. Equally significant is the fact that as the shot clock was winding down, opponents were, at times, forcing their shots as time ran out.

Second, Josh Roberts started two of the three games and was getting more minutes on the court than in the past. Roberts fought off the frontcourts of opponents more effectively on defense. Against Marquette, Roberts had four blocks in 20 minutes of court time. The rest of the team had three blocks. Against Connecticut Roberts had one block in 16 minutes of play.

Wendell Cruz

Most importantly, defensive success came to be as players were more consistently staying with their assignments. The team was switching better on defense and the tendency for the Johnnies to always double down when an opponent received a pass in the low post, seemed to lessen. Red Storm backcourt defenders were not leaving their defensive assignment to cover for others as frequently as in the past. By doing so the number of wide open threes, particularly from the corners, was reduced.

One last thought on defense. After the Connecticut game Coach Anderson made the following comment: “I thought Marcellus and Dylan brought the physicality and the toughness we needed to win. That’s what’s been lacking with our basketball team — sometimes you need some guys who can be rough and tough and be physical.”

Mix that toughness with a few more minutes from Roberts and the quickness of Alexander and Dunn and the Johnnies have a formula for continuing their good defensive efforts of the last three games.

Champagnie and Who Else?

Julian Champagnie goes for two
Wendell Cruz

Julian Champagnie is averaging 20 points on the season. He is shooting field goals at a 44.7 percentage and leads the team with an average of seven rebounds per game. Champagnie is hitting his threes at a rate of 41.3 percent. At 6’8’’, Champagnie is able to shoot over most opponents. His performances led him to two awards last week: Big East Player of the Week and Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association Met Player of the Week.

Who else can be depended upon? Junior Greg Williams — who has been sitting out the Connecticut and Utah Valley games due to back spasms — has, in several games, complemented Champagnie with his three point shooting as well as aggressive drives to the basket. Over the first 15 games of the season Williams has averaged 11 points per game with a 45.7 field goal percentage. Like Champagnie he has a plus 40 percent accuracy on his three-point attempts.

Posh Alexander has been developing more consistency in his three-point shooting. If he keeps it up, his ability to drive to the basket would be opened — and he could improve on his 10 points per game average.

Senior Rasheem Dunn has shown flashes of offense after his late start to the season, averaging just under eight points per game.

Marcellus Earlington had 15 points against UConn, and served as a stretch forward that caused the Huskies to use a big man to defend the perimeter, leaving space for other Johnnies to work.

Dylan Addae-Wasu has shown flashes of offense both from three-point land and on physical, aggressive drives to the basket. Averaging six points per game, Addae-Wasu carried the Johnnies in the first half of the game at Connecticut, scoring 10 points in the first half as the Johnnies fought back from a 14 point deficit.

Vince Cole and Isaih Moore has each had their days of being dominant offensively and days when scoring is scarce. Moore played well against the tall frontline of Georgetown, particularly in the first Georgetown game when he scored 26 points. Vince Cole has had one double digit scoring game in Big East play against Georgetown (17 points) in the home win on December 20th.

Hope for the Future

Wendell Cruz

“To me, St. John’s is getting a steal,” gushed Our Savior Lutheran assistant coach Charles Jones about the commitment of Posh Alexander to St. John’s University in fall 2019. prior to Alexander’s last year of high school basketball. “Based on his capability, intensity, tenacity, he’s a special kid. I’m just anxious to see what he’s going to become.”

With high school teammate Dylan Addae-Wusu, a less-heralded power guard with plenty of energy and athleticism, the Red Storm have some toughness to build on in the Big East.

Wusu, in particular, demonstrated this when Coach Anderson assigned Addae-Wusu to trail Seton Hall star forward Sandro Mamukelashvili, who had scored 31 points, having his way with several Johnnie defenders. Addae-Wusu, despite giving away seven inches to “Mamu”, pressured him and kept him from receiving passes in comfortable attacking positions on the court. Mamukelashvili, scored 32 points in the game, but scored one point over the games’ last eight minutes.

The toughness of Alexander is most notable with his manner of picking up his assignment the second he crosses mid-court,. his pressure is one factor in Alexander’s 2.5 steals per game average. But there is much more to the Alexander’s in-your-face defensive pressure — it can take the ball out of the hands of the point guard, and it can take time off of the 30-second shot clock It takes the ball out of the hands of the opponent’s point guard due to the pressure.

Wendell Cruz

Both freshmen fit into Coach Anderson’s upbeat style of high speed, high-pressure play. With experience their turnovers will be reduced, and their shooting should improve.

Conclusion

St. John’s has been enigmatic, but also... St. John’s has many new faces taking command. The Red Storm can go on double-digit runs, then go scoreless for even longer periods of time. During the last few games, the droughts have shortened. The defensive improvement of the last three games is the key as well to future success.

After Utah Valley, the Red Storm face ten Big East games. Two are against Villanova, who, though ranked number three in the country, looked vulnerable in a two-point victory to Seton Hall. An improved and relatively young Johnnies team could pull off a surprise in any game, but grittiness can only take a team so far; they will need consistency on the offensive end.

My prediction: the Johnnies will win three of five home games and will win one perhaps two on the road.

Coach Anderson’s record of never having a losing season may be on the line. But if the Johnnies’ improved defense intensifies and they get an additional away win, they can end the regular season 14-12 (8-11 in the Big East).