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2019-20 Big East Men’s Basketball Summer Check-in: St. John’s Red Storm

The biggest question mark in the league the last few years gets even more question marky.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Four-Arizona State Sun Devils vs St. John’s Red Storm Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Team: St. John’s Red Storm

2018-19 Record: 21-13 overall, 8-10 Big East

2018-19 Big East Finish: Seventh in the Big East, one of just three teams in the league to not be tied in some form or fashion.

Final 2018-19 KenPom Ranking: #88. The Johnnies fluctuated between the forties and fifties most of the season before tumbling down to eighty-eight after getting bounced in Dayton.

Postseason? Snuck into the NCAA Tournament as a “last 4 in” after nearly blowing their tournament hopes by losing four of their last five games and five of their last seven. They didn’t make it out of Dayton, however, and lost to Arizona State by a margin of 74-65.

Key Departures: Shamorie Ponds (team high in points (19.7) and assists (5.1); 4.1 rebounds), Marvin Clark II (10.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists), and Justin Simon (10.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists). In addition to those guys leaving for a pro career/finishing their eligibility, Bryan Trimble and Sedee Keita have transferred. Neither guy made a huge impact on SJU’s production, but they were getting quality minutes.

Key Returners: Mustapha Heron (14.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists) and LJ Figueroa (14.4 points, team high 6.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists) are the only two returning starters and, somehow, the only rotation players returning, too. I guess Greg Williams counts as a rotation guy, as he played 8.5 minutes per game while appearing in all but five of St. John’s games, but that’s far from being “key.”

Key Additions: Although it hasn’t been updated on the St. John’s website, our buddies at Rumble in the Garden reported that Monmouth grad transfer Nick Rutherford joined the team on June 19. The 6’4” point guard averaged 5.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.3 assists last season on 37.8% shooting. Meh, not an impressive stat line. The other newcomers include JUCO transfer Damien Sears and two freshmen in Julian Champagne and John McGriff.

Sears is a 6’9” forward that played for Jacksonville before going to Western Oklahoma State, where he averaged 13 points and six rebounds. Champagne is a 6’7” forward out of Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn. Rivals has him as a three star commit. He averaged 17.2 points in his final year at Bishop Loughlin. McGriff hails from Bowie, Maryland, where he played at Bishop McNamara High School and Huntington Prep. The 5’9” point guard is a three star commit and ranked as the 56th best point guard and third best player out of Maryland. They certainly have some additions. As far as impact they’ll have on the certainly remains to be seen what they can provide for the Red Storm. But these players are much needed to simply fill the open roster spots after the key departures of Ponds, Simon, and Marvin Clark III.

Coach: The Red Storm wave goodbye to Chris Mullin (who would’ve thought that would have been a failed experiment??) [Editor’s note: everyone except Jon Rothstein] and welcome former Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson this coming season. Believe it or not, Anderson has never had a losing record while coaching at the Division 1 level. He’s got a 369(nice)-200 record for his career. His resume includes nine NCAA Tournament appearances (although just three in eight years at Arkansas), two Sweet 16s, and one Elite 8 run. I’ve got my money to wager that he’s going to have more success and longevity at the helm of the Red Storm than our friend Mullin. He will have his work cut out for him after losing star player and the guy voted Most Likely To Shatter Marquette’s Hopes At A Deep Tournament Run, Shamorie Ponds.

Outlook: The near future is not looking great for the Johnnies.

Let’s recap...

During the season: St. John’s started the season 12-0 and had a lot of people fooled into thinking they were top-25 worthy. However, they had a very weak non-con slate with an OT victory against VCU standing out the most. Once Big East play started, they weren't as consistent. They had some impressive wins against Marquette twice (still hurts) and Villanova which most assuredly put them in the Tournament. But they also suffered some head-scratching losses against Butler and Providence, and then backed their way into the Big East Tournament, losing three in a row to Xavier twice and DePaul. One hell of a rollercoaster that stopped earlier than Shamorie and Co. expected with the loss to Arizona State.

After the season:

  • They lost the aforementioned Ponds that made them relevant in the Big East
  • Justin Simon pulled the trigger on a pro career
  • Mullin resigned
  • They had some difficulty convincing a coach to come to Queens.
  • Two players (Trimble and Keita) transferred out because they didn’t want to be on the team anymore for probably a combination of the reasons above.
  • LJ Figueroa entered the transfer portal before likely feeling sorry (or not finding luck) and returning to the Red Storm.

It’s entirely possible that I missed something on that list.

The good news for St. John’s is that Anderson is great coach. It’s a very tall task to figure out how to get the Johnnies back into the Tournament, but they might just have a winning record. They also have a (small) core to build around in Heron and Figueroa. According to KenPom, Figueroa was nationally ranked on KenPom in a bunch of categories last season including effective field goal percentage (57.9), turnover rate (11.1), steal percentage (3.1), 2-point field goal percentage (58), and 3-point field goal percentage (38.3). He’s an effective two-way player that will attempt to fill the shoes of Ponds from a production standpoint, while Heron was a pretty decent shooter from beyond the arc at 40.3%, ranking #203 nationally. The ideal situation is that these two veterans find a way to manufacture wins for the Johnnies.

The reality of the situation is that there’s no way they can contend in the Big East. They have seven newcomers which in this case means their roster is a lot weaker than it was last season. It’s always going to be a mountain to climb when you lose a crazy talent like Shamorie Ponds to a pro career, but the fallout from that has all but sealed their fate for this season. They are back to being the boring St. John’s that won’t casually beat Marquette, Villanova, or Duke.