Before three thousand fans, the St. John’s Red Storm trounced the Baruch Bearcats, 107-43 in an exhibition game on October 27th at Carnesecca Arena.
And there I was, back in the seats for the first time in two seasons. The conversations were a similar mix of excited and...
“Every year we fans say this is the year,” one fan said. “Remember when we had Shamorie Ponds, Clark and Simon? ‘We have the best starting five in the Big East’ or so we claimed. That team did not meet our expectations. So this year, I will wait and see”.
But it appears that this year’s team has more than a good starting five.
Before we begin: we must note that the Red Storm in this game had one clear advantage. With five players 6’8” or taller, the team had a height advantage over the Bearcats, whose tallest player was 6’6”.
The Johnnies also showed that their bigs were athletic, running the court and pressing their opponents the length of the court. Led by Julian Champagnie with 13 rebounds, the Red Storm out rebounded the Bearcats 56-24.
Thirty seconds before the beginning of the game, Julian Champagnie called the team together for a players’ only gathering at the foul line. It lasted for 30 seconds and a sign that Champagnie is taking a vocal leadership role on the team.
After a Stef Smith three to take a 3-0 lead at the 18:30 mark, Baruch went ahead 7-5 at the 17:20 mark. It was a slow start by the Red Storm, but that was also the Bearcats’ last lead of the game. The Johnnies pressure defense began to take effect, and the Red Storm ran off the next 17 points to lead 22-7. And Julian Champagnie had not yet scored.
So, of course, between the 10:00 minute mark of the first half and the 5:00 minute mark Champagnie scored fifteen points to continue the onslaught. With 5:08 to play in the first half, the Johnnies led 41-17.
The team played outstanding defense with the guards pressuring Bearcat players into an up-tempo game which led to many turnovers. When a Baruch player broke the defense down, and this did not happen frequently, the front line of the Johnnies defense was ready. Aaron Wheeler, coming off the bench, stepped up and blocked three shots on three consecutive Baruch possessions.
One fan commented that the Bearcats never got an open shot; but that fan was challenged, because there was an open 35-foot jump shot by one of the forwards with the shot clock going down.
The shot failed.
The Johnnies led 57-21 when the first half ended. One fan reminded all those around that the lopsided score was against a clearly weaker team. “What will [the Johnnies] when there is a stronger opponent like Indiana [on November 17th] or Kansas [on December 3rd]”.
Still, there was one area of improvement, and St. John’s went for it.
The second half began with a plan to feed the front line deep in the paint – Joel Soriano, Wheeler and Champagnie. Early in the half on three consecutive plays Posh Alexander brought the ball up court, began attacking and then found Soriano down deep under the basket for easy layups or dunks.
To return the favor on the fourth time down the court, Soriano set up at the foul line to take an entry pass. He turned and found a wide open Alexander alone under the basket. He fed him without hesitation and Alexander added two more points to an already insurmountable lead.
The fact that the Johnnie guards, not just Alexander, but Mathis, Coburn and freshman Rafael Pinzon were able to feed Wheeler and Soriano underneath for easy baskets demonstrated that the team was working together as a group of supportive teammates — and working on tightening up the halfcourt interior scoring that was lacking last season.
Midway in the second half, the freshmen enacted a fast break — from Pinzon to O’Mar Stanley that led to a breakaway dunk by Stanley. Wheeler and Soriano, on the bench at the moment, jumped up, all smiles, cheering on the freshmen for their outstanding play. Stanley has said that he joined the Johnnies due to the family atmosphere on the team and it was certainly evident on this day.
It is noteworthy that the Red Storm started the game and the second half with the following lineup: Alexander, Champagnie, Soriano, Mathis and Smith, three guards and two forwards. It was a small lineup, perhaps due to the fact that Baruch was not a tall team — or perhaps because those are the players who earned the shot.
Coach Anderson substituted freely through the game and there were times he had a taller line up on the court, lineup flexibility that he has spoken about in the preseason.
Based on this one game it appears he has ten-plus skilled players to “mix and match” with different teams to match up with opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.
Where was the three point shooting? The Johnnies moved the ball well and played aggressive defense throughout the game. Due to the quick ball movement and pushing the ball up court after Bearcat turnovers, the Red Storm was able to connect on many easy shots at the rim.
The team did not shoot many three-point attempts (28% of their shots taken were threes), though St. John’s connected at 35%. The Johnnies will need to shoot a higher number of threes in closer contests.
Turnovers and Turnovers… The good news is that the Johnnies had 19 steals which contributed to the 32 points scored off these turnovers by Baruch. However, the Johnnies committed 18 turnovers themselves.
Eleven of the turnovers occurred in the first half when the team may have been a little too aggressive. The turnovers went down considerably in the second half, particularly when the team began to feed the taller teammates down low.
One turnover by Rafael Pinzon midway through the second half, when he was trying to pass to a teammate on the left wing, was atoned for when Pinzon hustled down court and blocked the breakaway attempt by a Bearcat attacking the glass.
Balance Nothing was more impressive than the balanced attack displayed by the Johnnies. The team was ahead 22-7 at the ten minute mark of the first half, when Champagie first scored. Fifteen of the first 22 points were by newcomers to the team: Coburn, Soriano, Mathis and Smith. Fans expected a deeper team due to the addition of four experienced players as well as three talented freshmen. St. John’s showed depth, along with unselfishness.
The Johnnies not only dominated the boards (against an outsized team) but were able to provide consistent pressure on Baruch ball handlers. It was not only the Johnnies guards that provided the pressure; their taller frontcourt teammates joined in the all court pressure.
The team has a favorable schedule at the beginning of the year with only one true away game at Indiana on November 17th. This will be a challenge against a squad with a new coach and led a pre-season second-team all-American forward, Trayce Jackson Davis. He will be a challenge for Johnnies’ front court defenders.
With so many home games at the beginning of the season the team will have time to continue to work together and play as a team, which will be necessary as the schedule becomes more challenging, when the Big East schedule begins.