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St. John's men's hoops season preview: setting expectations for a rebuilding season

The Johnnies are all new, and that bodes well for the future... but this year may have rough patches.

Wendell Cruz

Here is what we know.

If you watch St. John's basketball closely and are expecting a 20-win season, you may want to have a backup plan for your college hoops happiness. The current St. John's roster - decimated by the loss of over 90% of the team's minutes and scoring, left with an inexperienced roster - is the definition of rebuilding mode.

The staff is new, led by head coach Chris Mullin and assisted by Barry Rohrssen, Matt Abdelmassih, and Greg St. Jean, with assistance from Mitch Richmond, Dan Matic, Luca Virgilio, and Dru Anthrop.

With a set of names, a new approach, a pair of high-level experienced recruiters in Rohrssen and Abdelmassih, the future seems bright...

But the present will be growing pains.

News that freshman point guard Marcus LoVett is ruled ineligible for the season, and no word on forward Kassoum Yakwe - who was possibly going to redshirt - leaves the Red Storm not just young, but with nine scholarship players and a walk-on.

There is only one point guard, and he is more of a shooter than a ballhandler. There are no players who can create their shot and generate points. And the coach is brand new to calling the shots from the sideline, though he has held high-level front office positions in the NBA.

The coach will improve.

The players will develop - that's a focus for the staff.

But in the meantime, expect the Johnnies to struggle as the team figures themselves out. Mullin's style seems to ask for effort and development; his teams will look for the three point shot and also look to share the ball. Both were too much in evidence early in preseason play; the staff is adjusting to the skill of the personnel.

This season, success has to look like development. Maybe some late-season wins in Big East play; some emerging stars in the paint and at the guard positions; a stronger sense of team mores, character and style. A flowing game of sharing the ball and generating open shots - even if those shots don't fall.

It's going to be tough for the casual fan to watch, and maybe tougher for the die-hard fan.

But this is part of a rebuilding process, heralded by St. John's all-time best player and by two assistants who have shepherded impressive rebuilding processes on the recruiting trail in Rohrssen (Pittsburgh) and Abdelmassih (Iowa State).

The Players

Forwards

There are three returnees. Amar Alibegovic, a sophomore forward from Italy who holds Bosnian citizenship, earned minutes last year despite a shot that wasn't falling with his willingness to bang in the paint. He will need to improve to earn time, but has some experience. If his shot starts falling from the outside, and he becomes a better rebounder, he could be an excellent piece of the puzzle.

Christian Jones, the little-used forward in his fourth year, has taken the opportunity to play and was active during preseason play, rebounding and scoring in the post; he looks to earn heavy minutes early on. He's always had the athleticism; now if his motor and awareness can match, he can be a matchup problem.

And Felix Balamou is a wing with athleticism who has been struggling with an injury in the last month. When healthy, he provides some quickness and hops and speed.

The Red Storm will lean on transfer 6'6" Durand Johnson, the fifth-year transfer from the University of Pittsburgh who is a solid scorer, though showed inconsistency under Jamie Dixon. At St. John's, once he gets his rhythm back, he has a chance to put up major points and take all the shots he would like.

Darien Williams is a junior college transfer who sat out last season with shoulder injuries. He brings a diversified game with the ability to shoot in mid-range, from beyond the arc, and drive from the wing. He can combine with Christian Jones and Amar Alibegovic to create a floor-spacing, dynamic big lineup.

At center, Yankuba Sima, a center from Spain, shows real potential. Though only 205 pounds, he looks willing to battle under the basket, and is quick. He blocks shots and even battles for rebounds despite looking to be a deterrent, which is sometimes hard for shot-blockers to do.

Guards

The Red Storm have a number of options at guard - though few are ready to dominate at the point guard position. Still, each player brings some court savvy and a willingness to pass.

Ron Mvouika is a wing who last player at Missouri State. He's heady and mature, has some dribbling ability, and can hopefully be a settling force, willing to do some of the dirty work.

The Johnnies will look to Italian guard Federico Mussini to man the point guard position for the year. He's slight of build and six-feet tall, not particularly strong defensively at this early stage. But he is a decent passer and has a nice three-point shot when he can get set. Playing next to a breakdown guard like Marcus LoVett may have allowed him to shine but... thems are the breaks. This year will be a laboratory for him, learning to mitigate his flaws (defensive foot speed, size, finishing inside) and maximize his skills (shooting, intelligence, passing).

Malik Ellison brings a heady and mature game as well. The freshman from New Jersey will likely enjoy some time at the point guard position, which will be critical to his development as a player. He does enough to stay on the floor; will he continue to find ways of being an impact player in those ways, or will he break out and become a strong scorer?

Walk-on Elijah Holifield brings some moxie and intelligence to the squad. He was a calming force in the second preseason game, willing to drive and play defense. His smarts will earn him more playing time for the Red Storm.

Outlook

The past is a predictor of future performance... unless there is no past. The lack of returnees is on the previous coach (and, in a way, on the coach before him), and St. John's hopes to break the cycle of boom-and-bust with the groundwork lain by Chris Mullin this year.

Groundwork won't be pretty, and this year's St. John's will build from the ground up, incrementally, and these players will be solid - just not immediately. It's on the staff to provide the fans moments where the players show their potential - a particularly strong scoring game, a relentlessness, signs of hope in the future. Mullin, as the school's best player, may enjoy a bit of a honeymoon from the longtime fans, but the building of new fans is at least a year away.

That doesn't mean that a gritty team can't bring joy. fans lough to see a team with fight. Fans love to see a team that shows potential. Fans love a team that makes you say "these guys are going to be good and I want to say I saw them way back when".

Will this be the team that takes on Mullin's grinder personality, the team that builds their skills and intensity to match the head coach?

Chris Mullin and St. John's sure hope so.