Photo courtesy of St. John’s University Athletics.
By David Cordova
Although it’s early in the college basketball season, there are a lot of programs that look interesting thus far in the early going. But in New York City, things are looking well for St. John’s.
They have started the season on a good note, winning their first two games over smaller opponents. On Friday, November 10th, they beat the University of New Orleans, 77-61, and on Tuesday, November 14th, they beat Central Connecticut State, 80-54.
The key to the success of the Red Storm is the fact that they are playing unselfishly as a team. This year, there’s a lot of passing and a lot of rebounding. And they are also great at forcing turnovers and shooting at a high percentage.
In the past two games, St. John’s forced 20 or more turnovers. “It’s something that we’ve worked hard on in the offseason, that’s for sure. Part of that is conditioning because to play defense, you have to be fit. We ask our guys to get up and pressure the ball, we don’t want to gamble. But we want to get up and wear them down all night,” said head coach Chris Mullin, “Whether it be Marcus [LoVett], Shamorie [Ponds], or Justin [Simon] they have done a really good job of that. That’s their job to pressure the ball and our bigs are there to support them…that allows for us to be in the backcourt and be a presence all night long. It’s something we’ve worked on, and I think we are good at it now…but we are going to get better at it.”
Their preseason All-Big East backcourt of sophomores Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett have been outstanding thus far. Ponds has been averaging 16.5 points, eight rebounds and five assists and LoVett has averaged 19 points per game. But one of the great things about LoVett was his shot selection, as he went 60% from the field against Central Connecticut State.
“We have some guys who can shoot the ball, no question. However, I’m more concerned about how those shots are being generated. We are out in the open floor,” says Mullin on LoVett’s shooting percentage. “I love that. I love inside-out play, draw-and-kick, and anytime we go into the post we like to get some action. If we are setting good screens and cutting hard…we are going to get our looks, and we have guys who can knock those shots down. I’m really not that concerned. I thought tonight we had good shot distribution and good ball movement. When we do that…offensively we are going to be okay.”
Then there is also the solid play of senior forward Bashir Ahmed, who has averaged 11.5 points per game and also redshirt sophomore forward Justin Simon, who has averaged 10.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. In his short time with the team, Simon has proven that he can do anything that the coaching staff needs in order to help the Red Storm win a ball game, whether it’s rebounding or scoring a clutch basket.
“We just have to play hard all 40 minutes,” said Simon. “I think both halves we came out a little flat, but we played well defensively, got a lot of stops when we needed to, and kept the pressure up.”
In the post, they also have redshirt juniors Marvin Clark II and Tariq Owens, both of whom have been dominating in the low block. Clark is averaging 10 points per game and Owens is averaging 5.5 points and 5.5. rebounds per game.
So far, Mullin is happy with the team’s progress, but feels the team must still improve especially for the bigger games that are ahead. “I see a lot of good play, both individually and collectively, but there is a lot of room for improvement. I do see that we can be much better in a lot of areas, but we are doing some good things.” says Mullin about the team’s overall performance. “We just have to understand that and keep on working. I think we’ve identified our weaknesses as a group, and we continue to work on them in practice so we can execute them in a game. I’ve seen some good, overall improvement.”
Tonight, they will be playing against Nebraska tonight at Carnesecca Arena, as part of the Dave Gavitt Tip-Off Games, a series of games played between schools in the Big East and the Big Ten in memory of the founder of the late commissioner and former Providence College coach who founded the Big East Conference in 1979.
Mullin’s take on the upcoming matchup with the Big Ten school: “It’s going to be a physical matchup. I told our players tonight, this is going to be the biggest and strongest team that we’ve played so far. They are going to bring their physicality…that’s always been the case with the Big Ten Conference. We have to meet that with force, and then get back and play our game. That’s going to be a big focal point of ours…keep them off the boards, being physical with their cuts, and matching their physicality. Then on offense and defense, we just have to go out and do what we do.”
Tonight’s game against the Cornhuskers will be a major test for the Red Storm to see if they’re ready to be considered as one of the top teams in the young season. A lot of followers believe that they could possibly make the NIT or even the NCAA Tournament this season, but the non-conference games are a true test of what may come for St. John’s this season.