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Maturity and defense power the Red Storm heading into conference play

What changed for the Johnnies this year?

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Anybody remember last year's St. John's men's basketball season?

It did not start well, at least not when it came to Big East play. In fact, it started about as poorly as it is possible for a team to start a season in a league that focuses almost entirely on basketball. The Red Storm opened Big East play by going 0-5 last year and capped it all off by falling, in double overtime, to Providence before finally notching their first league victory on January 23, taking down Seton Hall.

It was not pretty. It was not fun to watch.

Fast forward to this season. This has been a team that has been, for all intents and basketball-purposes, very pretty and very fun to watch.

St. John's, which moved up to No. 15 in the AP Poll on Monday after Sunday's blowout victory over Tulane, appears to be a well-oiled basketball machine, wrapping up non-conference play at 11-1, the best start for the program since the 1985-86 season.

Now, with Big East play on the very-soon horizon - the opener is scheduled for 12 p.m. against Seton Hall on New Year's Eve - there are plenty of reasons why St. John's is a different team than last year, a refocused group that can not only compete but could, very feasibly, start 5-0 in league play.

So, what's changed? There could be a million and two things, off-the-court and on the court, but, right now, there are two major factors that have turned this Red Storm team around and made this nationally ranked squad one of the most dangerous groups in the Big East.

Let's examine.

They Grew Up

This team has been through a lot over the past four years. That seems like an excuse and, maybe, some times during last year's losing streak, it felt like just that but that doesn't change the fact that it is true.

Whether it's Steve Lavin's battle with cancer, or his father passing away the season after that, or D'Angelo Harrison's suspension from the team, or Rysheed Jordan's off-the-court family issues, or ineligible players. Every single one of these things, whether the Red Storm wanted them to or not, showed up on the court and they showed up in the box score, slowing down Steve Lavin's plan.

This season, those off-the-court issues, something that will exist whether fans and media hear about them or not, have not found a way onto the box score. Instead, the Red Storm have, collectively, grown up and grown into their respective roles and, for perhaps the first time, are playing as a singular unit.

As a team, St. John's is averaging nearly 13 assists per game on an average of 25 field goals a game. That's a solid number and a stat that shows how cohesive this group has become. They're spreading the ball out and, more importantly, they're moving the ball, something that has led to them scoring an average of nearly 72 points per game.

The Defense

What this team thrives on and what will serve it well in Big East play, is defense.

That defense feeds the offense.

Of course, Chris Obekpa's 45 blocks and imposing presence make St. John's a defensive force, one of the best in the country. It's difficult to shoot over a guy who's the same height as some full grown trees, with great awareness and a quick jump once a shot is released.

But it's not just Obekpa.

So far this season, the Storm have averaged just under nine steals per game and forced a total of 179 turnovers. By comparison, St. John's has turned the ball over a total of 133 times. In Sunday's victory over Tulane, the Storm finished with 14 steals.

"I thought in the first half we had quick hands," Lavin said after the game. "We turned up the heat a bit and played with purposeful pressure."

It's an interesting defensive scheme. St. John's doesn't always bring full-court pressure but somehow finds a way to force teams into mistakes, even in the half-court. In fact, the Red Storm's 2-3 zone defense and 1-3-1 defense has become a thing of rotating beauty. Defense depends on players reading each other, trusting each other and covering each other.

That brings us back to maturity.

This team knows what its doing and, even when it plays small, moves faster than just about anyone they've faced so far this season.

Nothing is set in stone going into league play. No one knows what will happen. Pre-season rankings are just that, pre-season speculation.

But this team looks different than it did last year. This team, very visibly and vocally and statistically, cares and this team is ready for Big East play. Last season, St. John's was out-scored 382-to-345 in the first five league games. This season, the Storm have out-scored its first 12 opponents by more than 10 points per game.

Things have changed for this team and now it's time to see how much. Get ready for some Big East basketball, everyone.

"It feels great, but we know non-conference is done now besides one more with Duke," Harrison said. "It's time to get ready for the Big East. The Big East is another monster in itself. Our work isn't finished, but now we just have to get ready for Wednesday."