With non-conference play coming to a close, I reached out to our writers with a few pointed questions about St. John’s men’s basketball squad.
The writers were asked to be quick and therefore fairly general, so there is player-by-player depth you may not see here, but these questions and answers cover the general storylines of the Red Storm squad, now 8-2 headed into their Garden opener against Pittsburgh on Saturday — and conference play next week.
David Combs (DC); Thomas Cavanaugh (TC); Tim Ferguson (TC); JT Rausch (JTR) and myself, Norman Rose (NR).
And here are our answers.
1. Imagine a friend, who has seen basketball but never seen St. John’s, wants a description of the team in 10-20 words. What would you say?
DC: Aside from people like that not being friends of mine, I’d say they’re a fast, athletic team that plays like they’re in a hurry rather than just playing up-tempo.
TC: Lots of high-tempo scoring and little defense.
TF: Closely knit team with two stars, that is aggressive, sometimes too much, has inconsistent shooting and never gives up.
JTR: This team plays fast, but they struggle with consistency on both sides of the floor, especially when shooting.
NR: An offensively skilled, surprisingly physical work in progress that keeps games exciting.
2. Has the team exceeded, met, or missed your expectations so far?
TF: Expectations were for top four or five in the league with improvement of the three returnees and substantial help from transfers.
The three returnees have all improved.
As far as the transfers, the key word is “substantial.”
Only Montez Mathis has consistently done so. He takes on the most difficult defensive assignment in most games and has averaged 11 points and four rebounds per game. One can argue that, if he was not ejected so early in the Indiana Game, the Red Storm would have pulled that win out and our view of the team at this point of the season might be different.
Nyiwe’s performance against Fordham was a nice surprise. Soriano and Smith have been maddingly inconsistent. Coburn has not been the same since he went out for a few games with an illness and Wheeler has, so far, been a disappointment.
What seems problematic is that the team has not consistently jelled.
TC: The team has met my expectations so far, but there have been some missed opportunities. They don’t have a bad loss, but by scheduling a Charmin soft non-conference schedule outside of their games against Indiana and Kansas, they also don’t have a chance of putting a good non-conference win on their resume.
JTR: St. John’s has met my expectations so far, but in many of their games they could have performed better. Their record with a road loss to Indiana and a loss to Kansas is what would have been predicted for them, but I do think they could have beaten Indiana and should have won by more against Fairleigh Dickinson, St. Francis Brooklyn, and NJIT. Wins are wins and losses are losses, however, so they are in a decent position and can do some damage when conference play starts.
NR: Around met expectations. I would have predicted more from some players, but Posh Alexander remains a stalwart, Champagnie is a very good scorer, the interior scoring is better. Might have expected bigger margins against some of the lower-level opponents, and better shooting from some of the newcomers.
DC: St. John’s has barely missed my expectations. The Red Storm have won all the games they were supposed to, but I did not expect this many close games with the non-power conference opponents.
3. Are the Johnnies better in the paint this season, so far?
TC: Yes, but compared to last season’s interior play, that’s quite a low bar to clear. I still would like to see some consistent improvement by Aaron Wheeler and Joel Soriano, as whatever success St. John’s hopes to attain this season hinges on their play in the paint.
DC: Yes, last season, the Red Storm ranked 189th in 2-point shooting percentage at just under 50%. This year, they are 9th in the country in same category shooting just under 60% largely due to how efficient the team is in the paint.
NR: Yes — the defense has more options. The dunking is missed, but the strength available, plus the emergence of O’Mar Stanley and Esahia Nyiwe give hope that even better performance is yet to come.
JTR: I do not think the Johnnies’ paint play has been noticeably better this season, as they still do not have a big man that they can run a possession through to get an inside look. Their perimeter players have done a decent job of getting to the basket and their bigs have finished when they needed to, but there have been times when they have been outworked on the glass, and Joel Soriano has not been as good of a scoring center as he was at Fordham.
TF: Probably the biggest disappointment is Joel Soriano in the paint. He appears to have real potential. He has a jump hook that he shoots after backing his opponent down. It seems unstoppable but he is not as accurate with it as he first appeared. He has played some nice defense under the basket but has not consistently rebounded.
Esahia Nyiwe showed potential in the Fordham game, even hitting a long three from the top of the key. He also made some nice assists while tying Champagnie for the team lead in rebounds and leading the team with three blocked shots. He is quicker on his feet than Soriano and covers more ground on defense. But it is only one game in which he received substantial minutes.
Neither Soriano or any of the other newcomers have broken out with a big offensive performance like Isaih Moore did on occasion last year.
4. How do you think Julian Champagnie’s play has impacted his national/ professional profile?
DC: His professional profile may by some have dropped or remained the same. Champagnie said that scouts told him that he needed to improve his perimeter defense and overall versatility. On the perimeter, St. John’s has had the benefit of putting Champagnie on the opponent’s lesser wing because he’s surrounded by superior defenders in Mathis and Addae-Wusu. However, when Kansas’s Christian Braun, a late first to second round prospect like Champagnie, was guarded by Champagnie, Braun was able to expose Champagnie’s slow lateral foot speed on the perimeter despite how far back Champagnie was playing off of Braun with the below as an example.
In the Kansas game, a scout looking to see Champagnie’s defensive abilities would come away disappointed.
TC: He has definitely raised his draft stock. He fits the modern NBA wing niche to a tee and he has raised his level of play against the best competition St. John’s has faced so far this season. He still needs to improve on his shot selection and defense, but his gifted scoring abilities has him on the radars of many NBA teams.
TF: Champagnie has played well this year and stepped up against the better competition (Indiana, second half versus Kansas). His assists and steals are up a bit, he has demonstrated some leadership skills this year, but he still has some trouble staying with his man when facing a skilled offensive player like Braun of Kansas.
Without improvement his draft stock will probably be the same as the past year – mid/late second round. However, if his shooting consistently goes on fire as it did against Indiana and second half Kansas game, his stock would probably rise. Otherwise, he might consider coming back for his senior year.
JTR: Julian Champagnie has not done much to change his national profile in the first month of the season, as his first 8 games have looked as expected. He has some great stretches, but there have also been times where he has seemed invisible on offense. He probably sits at around a mid to late second round pick and an All-Big East First Teamer, but he has a lot of time left in the season to elevate this status.
NR: Probably the same as last year.
5. What is one habit you think the Red Storm needs to break to be successful?
JTR: One habit they need to break is trading baskets.
This is a fast Johnnies team that is able to force turnovers and score transition buckets, but they often do not go on big runs because they trade baskets and get scored on after they hit a big shot. Getting stops after big scores will allow the Red Storm to build leads and win games during conference play.
TC: Excessively switching and not rotating on defense has punished this team and left shooters open along the perimeter often. In their last six games, St. John’s has allowed opponents to shoot 36.4% from three-point range, and I would figure that a great amount of those shots have stemmed from broken defensive coverage.
DC: Guys still seem to be in the habit of playing methodical basketball. Five of the transfers played at a pace that ranked 192nd or slower last season. Those guys, as well as the freshmen, all appear considerably sped up by St. John’s style of play.
TF: The team needs to be under control when attacking the basket more. Most of the Johnnies turnovers are self-inflicted due to over-aggressiveness. The team is an up-tempo team so there will be turnovers. Sometimes the unselfish Johnnies make one too many passes.
As the rotation becomes more stabilized some of these errors will be eliminated. With only three players returning and having Addae-Wasu out for some time at the beginning of the year made this familiarization all the more challenging.