2019 Preview: St. John's Red Storm
Year 4 is judgement day for Chris Mullin and the current St. John’s Red Storm staff, who were brought in to replace Steve Lavin after the 2014-15 season. As most of the followers of the Big East Conference knows, Mullin returned to his alma-mater in attempt to turn around the program. In his inaugural season at the helm in Queens, he went 8-24. Fast forward to having players that we’re still from the Lavin era, they simply did not fit into the style of play Mullin was trying to teach. The last one from the previous regime, Amar Alibegovic, graduated after last year’s campaign.
The first two showings for the Johnnies did not showcase prized transfer Mustapha Heron due to “undisclosed” against Rhode Island in a closed scrimmage, and a “concussion” that had the Connecticut native in the concussion protocol for last week’s exhibition contest against the Division II school Maryville Saints (St. Louis). Both games ended in losses, where the Johnnies started off slow in both games, by shooting 32.1% and 36.1% in their respective games’ first halves. Against the Saints of Maryville, there were signs of life for the Johnnies, as they finished by shooting 17-for-33 (51.5%) from the field, and five-for-10 from the perimeter. Not a good night for the Johnnies that had the media a bit scared about the Queens squad that has a ton of pressure on them in Chris Mullin’s fourth season at the helm. The effort was poor, and Mullin made the public aware. “In general, I’m very disappointed by our effort and energy. It was a big issue tonight.”
PLAYERS LOST/ADDITIONS TO THE RED, WHITE, AND BLUE
The Red Storm lost Bashir Ahmed and Big East blocks leader in Tariq Owens, both to graduation, and the latter taking his talents to Texas Tech as a graduate student. The team will now be replaced by a slew of talent, both freshman, and redshirts that have sat behind the former starters last season. Former MAAC Rookie of the Year and Quinnipiac Bobcat Mikey Dixon is set to become the team’s new sixth man, as he surpasses sophomore Bryan Trimble Jr in the rotation. Freshmen Greg Williams Jr, Josh Roberts, and Marcellus Earlington were added as depth, along with sophomore JUCO transfer L.J. Figueroa,. Justin Cole and Brandon Lawrence return for the Johnnies as the two walk-on’s for the squad this season. Mississippi State and Houston Baptist transfers Eli Wright and David Caraher respectively will begin their St. John’s careers in street clothes this season as they must abide by the NCAA’s redshirt transfer rule.
CHANCE TO START FRESH
A medical injury for Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron, had fans trying not to reminisce the “medical issue” with the last player to wear Mullin’s #20 in Marcus LoVett, who left the team in pursuit of a professional career in Europe and over personal issues with the team’s medical staff. The team led by Shamorie Ponds, Justin Simon, and Marvin Clark II never really recovered from his loss, as he averaged 15 points-per-game and played in only seven games. The depth, defense, and season became a massive disappointment for the third season for Mullin as he was strapped with players needing to play 30+ minutes per game.
Controlling seems to be a bright spot for the Johnnies this season, who ranked ninth in the Big East by averaging 73.1 points-per-game a season ago. Granted, the depth was not there as players were forced to play a majority of the game. Reasonable minutes will now be able to be distributed to the eight rotational players (you would think) in Ponds, Heron, Simon, Clark II, Keita, Figueroa, Dixon, Trimble Jr. Fans and critics will look for better outside shooting, as the Red Storm ranked ninth in three-point-percentage with 33% completion throughout their season. Turnovers will continue to be listed on the pros and cons list as that will look to change for the new-look Johnnies. Expect the Johnnies to spread the ball around, as they will have more than just four offensive threats. They will now have eight. Expect every player listed above to average more than eight points per game (bold thought).
Not being able to rebound was also another problem for the Johnnies as they ranked dead last in the conference at 39.5 boards per game for the opponent, and ranked ninth in the conference in grabbing their own rebounds by obtaining 33 of them per contest. No more Tariq Owens, no more blocking leader. Enter Sedee Keita.
Redshirt Junior Justin Simon told us at the team’s Media Day that Sedee Keita has more of the offensive presence that the team needs. That may be nice, but where does the defense fit in? This puts massive pressure of the South Carolina transfer in Keita, who was the backup during the team’s Final Four run in 2016, will now have the center spot all to him this season. Just a few months ago, the Johnnies led the Big East in blocked shots by averaging 5.2 per game. and were dead last in rebound margin. Defense a season ago was ranked in the Top 50 in the nation, as the team went from one of the worst in the country to a double-digit ranked squad on the opposite side of the ball.
Peaking at the team’s presence down-low a season ago, one may think that they may get burned, this time in the low-post due to the height not being present this season. Due to the team’s booming down-low coverage, the Johnnies forced teams to pass the ball behind the arc, and consequently would shoot the ball roughly 43% of the time, which was ranked 36th worst in the country and made 37% of those shots, which ranked 55th worst in the country (Courtesy: Rumble in the Garden). The tallest players are Sedee Keita and Josh Roberts, both listed at 6’9” on the team’s roster. St. John’s could easily play small ball with Marvin Clark II at the five.
Ranked #1 in the conference by averaging approximately 8.5 steals per game led by redshirt junior Justin Simon, looks to continue his dominance on the defensive side of the ball with a massive addition in great two-way junior Mustapha Heron.
OUTLOOK VIA NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULING
Now, looking towards the schedule for the Johnnies after two rough exhibition starts, they begin with a favorable non-conference schedule, that has reporters believing the Red Storm should be able to win almost all of these games in order to mark their ticket to the big dance, which could be the first time in the Mullin era since 2014-15 (Final Season as Head Coach for Steve Lavin). Chris Mullin and the Johnnies begin a pressure-filled season against Loyola Maryland, who have not played each other since 1934. The Red Storm lead that series 10-0 against Loyola-MD, and 89-36 against teams from the Patriot League. The remainder of the schedule includes Bowling Green, Rutgers, University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, University of California (Cal), Princeton, Georgia Tech, and possibly Temple (GoPrints.com Legends Classic), Wagner, and Mount St. Mary’s.
SLOW DOWN THERE KIDDO
Wins are not a guarantee for these Johnnies come Big East conference play as they have a rough start by heading across the river to face long-time rival Seton Hall Pirates from the Prudential Center just three days before the new year. Welcoming Marquette to Carnesecca Arena, who have All-Big East first teamer Markus Howard, along with the addition of Joey Hauser, brother of Sam, will be a very tall task on New Years Day. The Golden Eagles defeated the Johnnies twice last season in Milwaukee and in Queens. This Marquette squad is slated to finish second according to the coaches within the conference, voted in the Big East Preseason Coaches Poll.
Each team plays each other twice within the conference. That is not the issue. The road games that the Johnnies were given, were not spared any expense by the Big East Conference, as they have to travel to Washington D.C. to face Georgetown, then Villanova on the same road trip. Later in the season, a crucial three game road trip that includes the second annual Garf Games, this time, at Cameron Indoor Stadium on the campus of Duke University (Mike Cragg’s return to Durham). Same road trip begins with Creighton in Omaha, and ends in Milwaukee facing Marquette at the newly constructed Fiserv Forum. Two crucial road trips that could define Mullin’s fourth season very early on if all goes well…or bad.
There is no reason why the St. John’s Red Storm cannot defeat every team in non-conference play this season. They will run into problems come Big East Conference time, as expected. Defending national champions Villanova Wildcats will sport a new look this season, but it’s very obvious, until they are not the champs of the conference, they will continue to be the champs. Johnnies will win 23 games and lose eight. Winning a lone game in the Big East Conference against Butler getting defeated by Villanova in the second round of said tournament. Thus, making the team an 11 seed in the dance. A return to the NCAA tournament is imminent for Chris Mullin. Otherwise, newly hired Athletic Director from Duke Mike Cragg, could bring in a familiar contact from Durham to replace him. Let the games begin….