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2020-21 Big East Men’s Basketball Team Preview: St. John’s Red Storm

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They ended last year on an up note, but does that mean they’re better this season?

Big East Tournament Quarterfinals: St. John’s vs Creighton
Look, it’s a funny picture. I’m going to use it.
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Team: St. John’s Red Storm

2019-20 Record: 17-15, 5-13 Big East

2019-20 Big East Finish: Tied for eighth, ended up losing tiebreakers and had the #9 seed in the Big East tournament.

Final 2019-20 KenPom Ranking: #66

Postseason Projection: Nothing on Bracket Matrix for the NCAA tournament, and their NIT hopes aren’t looking so great at 5-13 in the league. Then again, they were leading Creighton at the half when the Big East finally ended the conference tournament on quarterfinals day, so who can really say what would have happened?

Key Departures: St. John’s had two seniors that were regular contributors last year. The most notable one is Mustapha Heron, who played in just 21 games before an ankle injury brought his college career to a premature end. The 6’5” Heron averaged 13.8 points, second most on the team, along with 2.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists while shooting 39% from long range. The other notable senior was Nick Rutherford. He played in all 32 games and earned 23 starts. He was kind of quiet, averaging 5.5 points and 2.4 rebounds, but Rutherford ended up second on the team with 3.1 assists per game.

LJ Figueroa is also gone. As a junior last season, the 6’6” Figueroa led the Johnnies in scoring with 14.5 points per game while ending up as the only Red Storm player to start all 32 games. He also chipped in 4.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and a team high 1.9 steals per game. Damien Sears has departed the program as well, electing to leave as a grad transfer, it seems. He started his career at Jacksonville, and saw action in almost all of St. John’s games last season. It seemed like he was working his way into being a rotation piece as December came to an end and Big East play started, getting double digit minutes in four of five games. That didn’t stick, though, and he was relegated to spot minutes here and there the rest of the way.

Key Returners: As the leading returning scorer, Rasheem Dunn gets the top billing here. He gave the Red Storm 11.9 points per game last year along with 3.8 rebounds and a team high 3.4 assists per game. The less said about his 22% three-point shooting the better in the eyes of the Johnnies’ faithful. Julian Champagnie led the team in rebounding at 6.5 per game, and that’s always a good thing to have coming back for another season. Marcellus Earlington came off the bench for the most part for St. John’s a year ago, but anyone who gives you nine points and five rebounds off the bench while playing less than half the time is doing more than his fair share.

The collection of guys who contributed a decent amount last year for St. John’s just keeps going with Greg Williams, Josh Roberts, and David Caraher. Roberts (5.0 points, 5.8 rebounds) was a starter for the Johnnies, although that didn’t pay off in terms of starters minutes on average. Williams (5.7 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.4 steals) did his part, playing in all but one game and starting 10 times. Caraher (4.3 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists) was a regular rotation piece every night, but didn’t do much in terms of big statistical contributions.

Key Additions: St. John’s has the #79 recruiting class in the country according to 247 Sports, which is seventh best in the Big East. The good news is that they have two top 25 prospects! The answer to the question that’s suddenly popping up in your head is that they’re both junior college prospects. Isaih Moore (#20) is a 6’9”, 205 pound forward out of Pearl River Community College, while Vince Cole (#21) is a 6’6”, 195 pound shooting guard from South Carolina-Salkehatchie. In terms of actual freshmen on the roster, the Red Storm have added two guys from Our Saviour Lutheran School in the Bronx. Neither one is a top 225 prospect, but I’m going to mention Posh Alexander here because his name is great.

I don’t know if any of those guys will make an impact right away, but I’m guessing we’ll see a decent amount of Arnaldo Toro. He’s a graduate transfer from George Washington. The 6’8”, 240 pound Toro saw action in four seasons for the Colonials, although one was an injury-shortened campaign that I presume he got a medical redshirt for that allowed his transfer to St. John’s. He was averaging 10.1 points and 9.3 rebounds in that seven game junior year, and ended up going for 6.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game mostly off the bench in 2019-20.

Coach: Mike Anderson, entering his second season at St. John’s. After an opening campaign of 17-15, Golden Gate Mike preserved his streak of never finishing below .500 in his 18 seasons as a head coach. He has a career record of 386-215 after stops at Arkansas, Missouri, and UAB.

Outlook: I don’t think St. John’s is better than they were a year ago, and that’s a major problem for this season.

Last year, the Johnnies started out 11-2 on the season with a home loss to a good Vermont team and a neutral site loss to an Arizona State squad pointed at the NCAA tournament. They also picked up wins over West Virginia and Arizona, with both of those coming after both of the losses. If you wanted to say that things were looking up for St. John’s in Year One under Mike Anderson at that point, you had a pretty good leg to stand on.

And then the Johnnies swept that leg out from under you. They would go just 2-9 in their next 11 games, with the two coming as a season sweep of DePaul. That’s not anything that’s going to make anyone happy, as “sweeping DePaul” is kind of a bare minimum for a team that’s even pretending to be a success. That dropped the Red Storm to 13-11 on the season, and their postseason options were kind of done. This is also the point of the season where Mustapha Heron got hurt, so thinking things were going to get worse was definitely a reasonable perspective.

And then they closed with three wins in their final seven regular season games, and they were pretty notable wins. They knocked off Providence with relative ease, especially considering that PC would not lose again for the rest of the year after that. They dropped Creighton by twenty thanks to a 17-1 run in the second half, thus terminating the Bluejays’ chances of an outright league title and probably costing Ty-Shon Alexander the Big East Player of the Year trophy. And finally, they buried Marquette in the regular season finale. sure, the final margin was only two points, but the Golden Eagles desperately needed to win the game and SJU jumped out to a 12-0 lead before completely handing that lead back and then leading by 21 just before halftime. Steve Wojciechowski had to bench three of his starters in the second half just to have a chance at rallying, and there’s a weird sentence for you.

Following that, St. John’s knocked off a Georgetown squad that wanted nothing to do with the season continuing in the first day of the Big East tournament, and then turned around 12 hours later to lead Creighton at the half when the tourney was finally halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s signs of life! That’s good!

Except St. John’s really depended on L.J. Figueroa to do a whole hell of a lot of that. He finished #129 in the country in team shot percentage, and that’s not telling you the full story of what happened down the stretch because he was sharing shots with Mustapha Heron up until the injury ended Heron’s year. Figueroa had a usage rate over 22% for all of SJU’s final eight games, and north of 25% for the final six. And now he’s gone.

The combination of Dunn, Earlington, Champagnie, Roberts, and Williams coming back is probably all good news. The thing that makes me concerned about whether or not they’re better is that these guys weren’t guys that were depended on to score last year. Even worse, you can’t look at this collection of guys and say “oh, well, if they just get more chances, they’ll be fine.” Dunn and Earlington are guards/wings that can’t shoot threes or at the very least have shown no reason to be allowed to shoot threes. Champagnie does too much for you close to the rim to be spending a lot of time outside, and he’s not good out there anyway. That leaves Williams as the only guy coming back for the Johnnies that should really be shooting..... and if you have only one trustworthy long range shooter in this day and age, you have none.

The good news is that Mike Anderson didn’t have his guys depending on threes last season, finishing in the bottom 50 in the country in attempt rate. The bad news is that they don’t even have guys that you have to take seriously out there any more, and that’s just going to make it harder to shoot twos..... and SJU finished #332 in the country at that a year ago.

I think Arnaldo Toro will be a good contributor for the Johnnies this year. He’s got the track record of the kind of guy who makes for a perfect grad transfer: He has an obvious role that he plays, and he plays it very well. You don’t need to depend on him to do a lot, but he’ll get his job done. St. John’s is going to need their junior college guys to play pretty big roles. Sure, there’s a core of returning guys that will carry a good load for this team, but that’s six guys, counting Caraher in there, too. Toro will do his part, but that’s only seven. At least one of either Moore or Cole has to give them 20 minutes a night if they want to do some damage in this league. Based on what we’ve said so far here, it would seem that as the guard of the two, Cole might have a better chance of finding a spot in the rotation and sticking there. It’s possible that Moore can shoot it too, and if he can, that’ll get him into games regularly.

If you think that all of the returning guys can take a step forward and that makes St. John’s better than they were last year, that’s not crazy. The question is how much better? I don’t think they’re better than new member Connecticut, and that’s a potential two extra losses to take. I think St. John’s is clearly better than DePaul and Georgetown, but that’s not really a compliment. Is this a tournament capable team? Based on Big East results last year, they weren’t. Are they six wins — that gets them to 11 wins in a 20 game schedule — better now? I don’t think that’s the case.