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In the rearview: the new Johnnies define themselves

From a 9th place projection to a first round bye, it has been a weird but fulfilling season for St. John’s

NCAA Basketball: Providence at St. John Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

It has been almost a year to the day since St. John’s went into halftime against Creighton in the Big East Tournament and never came back out. The Johnnies were up 38-35, and just like that, the season was over.

Mustapha Heron and Nick Rutherford graduated. LJ Figueroa transferred to Oregon. And fans were left to wait and see what the program had in Posh Alexander, Vince Cole, and Isaih Moore. The preseason predictions were a bit all over the place, with some having the feeling the Red Storm could be in the middle of the pack (Lindy’s had St. John’s sixth), while the league’s coaches and CBS Sports had the Johnnies slotted in ninth.

The Red Storm may have far outstripped predictions — earning coach Mike Anderson the Coach of the Year award for the season, where the Johnnies finished in the fourth position in the league after a tiebreaker with Seton Hall — but that outcome was far from likely even in January.

St. John’s out of conference play, brief and meant to be a tune up for conference play, turned out to be a mixed bag despite their 6-1 non-conference record.

Six of those games occurred prior to the beginning of Big East play. The Red Storm picked up wins over statistically inferior Saint Peter’s, Boston College, and Rider teams, but only by a combined 8 points in those three contests — and with real scares against the Peacocks and Broncs.

Vince Cole gets an earful of correction from the head coach
Wendell Cruz

So, picked to finish ninth in the Big East and lacking a noteworthy win prior to Big East play — with struggles against there was reason to be concerned as to how the Red Storm’s season might go.

It started worse than anyone had imagined. The Johnnies opened Big East play with a 1-5 record —inclusive of a loss to Xavier where St. John’s failed to convert a single field goal attempt for an approximately seven minute stretch prior to the last three minutes of the game.

With hope seemingly lost, the Red Storm’s play picked up, and the Johnnies finished the remaining Big East games with a 9-4 record. St. John’s split with perennially ranked Villanova, but also dropped three of these games to this season’s bottom three teams in the conference in Marquette, Butler, and DePaul.

In short, the collective outcome of the regular season was good enough for St. John’s to earn a first round bye in the Big East Tournament for the first time since the 2015 Big East Tournament.

Julian Champagnie concentrates while the defense nips at his heels
Wendell Cruz

Individually, we observed considerable production from three players in particular who had large shoes to fill.

In particular, Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa accounted for a combined 24.5 field goal attempts per game in 2019-20. With both gone, Julian Champagnie filled this void beautifully. Champagnie nearly doubled his attempts from the field from last season (8.3 to 15.1) while largely maintaining his overall shooting percentage (45.3% to 43.9%). As a result, he made the All-Big East team and is considered by many to be a Big East Player of the Year snub, even as three players sharing the award for the first time in Big East history.

He did receive Most Improved Player and was a member of the all Big East’s First Team.

Next, Posh Alexander was already coming in as the most exciting new face for the Johnnies. Alexander was already touted by 247Sports as the sixth best recruit from the State of New York in 2020, and once we saw him play, he gave us the feeling of what New York basketball should look like.

Offensively, while Posh’s three-point shooting is a work in progress (that has improved during the season), his passing and 4.4 assists per game are indicative of the shift away from Chris Mullin’s isolation heavy approach to a style where everyone gets the opportunity to both touch and score the ball.

Posh Alexander relieves Collin Gillespie of the ball once again
Brenden Willsch

Defensively, Alexander is seemingly always pressuring the opposing ball handler, and does so effectively to the tune of 2.6 steals per game. Posh was rewarded for his outstanding play by being awarded the Big East’s Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.

Dylan Addae-Wusu largely flew under the radar. His 247Sports rating was similar to Posh’s — ranked 379 to Posh’s 254, though Posh was a fringe top-150 player before injury. Entering the season, Alexander, Cole, and Moore were the bigger names rolling into town, and Addae-Wusu seemed like a player destined for a deep bench learning role.

Like most freshman, Addae-Wusu has some growing to do with his shot selection and defensive lapses. When he wants to, however, he gets to the rim with ease due to his athleticism and strong frame.

A defender tries to take Addae-Wusu, with a head of steam, on in the paint.
Brenden Willsch

His measurables — seventh on the team in three-point shooting percentage and 10th on the team in defensive rating — don’t stand out immediately. But Mike Anderson trusts him as a high-motor player who thinks defense-first and makes some big plays — and can be trusted to make good offensive decisions. That is probably why he plays the sixth most minutes per game.

It has been a weird calendar year for the Johnnies in terms of just on the court activity — delays, multiple weeklong breaks, worries about the COVID situation within the team and on other squads.

The Red Storm had some nice individual wins during the season, but despite finishing fourth in the conference, were only able to sweep Providence of the teams that they played twice. Consistency, the one thing the team has yet to show this season, over the next three days will be the key for the Johnnies if they are to make a run at the NCAA Tournament.

However, they may just have the dogs to do it.