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

The Johnnies lose a lot from last year’s rotation, but bring an awful lot back to continue to frustrate me.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 03 Women’s Seton Hall at St John’s
Qadashah Hoppie led the Johnnies in scoring last season.
Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Team: St. John’s Red Storm

2019-20 Record: 19-12, 11-7 in the Big East

2019-20 Big East Finish: In a five-way tie for third place, two games back of second. By way of tiebreakers, St. John’s was the best team in the tie and thus were the #3 seed in the conference tournament.

Final 2019-20 Her Hoop Stats Ranking: #49

Postseason Projection: Well, they aren’t in High Post Hoops’ projection, and ESPN has unfortunately advanced their Bracketology to a preview for 2020-21. So, prrrrrrrobably not an NCAA year for the Johnnies, and getting clanked by 23 by Marquette in the Big East semifinals didn’t help their case. However, the WNIT has an auto-bid rule where the best team from each conference that doesn’t make it to the NCAAs gets in, so they would have been a lock there since they were officially the third best team behind NCAA teams DePaul and Marquette.

Key Departures: Losing your #3, #4, and #5 scorers is probably not ideal, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. Alissa Alston was a redshirt senior a year ago, playing one year at SJU after three years at Ole Miss. She chipped in 11.7 points while shooting 39% from long range, plus 2.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists while starting in all 30 games that she appeared in. Pretty good stuff. Alisha Kebbe is also done after four years at St. John’s. She wrapped up her collegiate career with 24 starts in 27 appearances where she averaged 8.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, and an assist.

The big loss of the three, though, is Tiana England. The Connecticut native averaged 9.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, and a team high 5.2 assists per game for St. John’s as a redshirt junior last year. She picked up her degree, though, and now she’s a grad transfer at Florida State. That is a repudiation of the Red Storm’s future at least for this season, as the Seminoles have qualified for the last seven NCAA tournaments and 14 of the last 15 and would have tacked on another if there had been a 2020 tourney. It’s also a huge compliment to England, as she’ll be replacing all-ACC First Teamer Nicki Ekhomu in the lineup in Tallahassee.

Key Returners: Bringing back your top two scorers is usually a pretty good sign for how a season is going to go, so that’s a sign of optimism for St. John’s here. They’ll be able to rely on Qadashah Hoppie and Leilani Correa this season with both women averaging over 12 points per game a year ago. The 5’7” Hoppie is a senior this year after leading the Johnnies with 15.4 points per game in 2019-20, and she added 2.5 rebounds and nearly two assists per game. She was also their most dependable and depended upon shooter as she connected on 38% of her 197 long range attempts. Hoppie attempted more than twice as many threes as anyone else on the team, so expect that to continue again this season.

Correa had an outstanding freshman season for the Johnnies last season, ending up as a unanimous selection for the Big East’s All-Freshman team and winning Sixth Woman of the Year from the league as well. She appeared in 30 of St. John’s 31 games with just three starts, but Correa averaged over 25 minutes a night. She was #2 on the team in scoring at 12.8 points per game, and the 6’0” guard added 5.1 rebounds per game, too. She was a distant #2 in assists on the squad to England, but 2.4 assists per game is pretty good for second best on the team.

In addition to those two, St. John’s will also get to rely on three more regular rotation players from a year ago. Kadaja Bailey is back after a sophomore campaign where she played in all 31 games and averaged 6.9 points and 4.8 rebounds. Emma Nolan started most of St. John’s games last year as a freshman, although her 4.3 points and 1.9 rebounds in 15 minutes per game aren’t knocking anyone’s boots off. Raven Farley had to sit out the first semester last season after transferring from LSU, but the 6’4” New Jersey native played in 16 games after that and gave the Johnnies 3.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in 17 minutes per game off the bench.

I guess you could count Unique Drake as a Key Returner if you wanted, because she played in an awful lot of games last season. While she appeared in 28 games, she averaged only 7.3 minutes per game and didn’t do all that much in the stat department. There’s a few more names with a smattering of minutes, which is good news in terms of “used to being on the floor and familiar with the system,” but that’s about it.

Key Additions: The Red Storm have four new names on the roster this season, all of whom will be active and eligible. Let’s start with the two freshmen. Blue Star and Prospects Nation seem to be at odds on which of the two is more notable. Blue Star only lists Danaijah Williams in the Johnnies’ recruiting class, but they do rank her as the #165 recruit in the country. Prospects Nation lists both Williams and Sara Zabrecky, and they have Zabrecky as a four-star prospect and include her on their “watch list,” whatever that means. St. John’s lists Williams as a 5’11” guard out of Brooklyn, while Zabrecky is a 5’9” guard from Munster, Indiana. The Red Storm go out of their way to mention Zabrecky’s four-star status in her site bio as well as identifying her as a talented shooter. ESPN does not help clarify any of this because they don’t list any recruits for St. John’s.

The other two newbies are Rayven Peeples and Fapou Semebene, both of whom are forwards making the jump from the same junior college. Peeples is a 6’3” forward from Michigan and she ended up at Northwest Florida after a year at North Carolina A&T where she was good enough to be named MEAC Player of the Week twice as a freshman. Peeples led the squad with 14 points per game last season and shot a whopping 64% from the field. Semebene started off her collegiate career at Washington where she played in 25 games as a freshman in 2017-18 before missing 2018-19 with an injury. Last season, the 6’0” Los Angeles native led Northwest Florida with 9.2 rebounds per game and earned all-conference First Team honors.

Coach: Joe Tartamella, entering his ninth season in charge of the Red Storm and overall. He has a record of 162-100 and is looking for his first NCAA tournament berth since 2016.

Outlook: Earlier I said that losing your #3, #4, and #5 scorers isn’t ideal, but it’s not the worst thing. That’s true, but mostly because it means you return your top two scorers, and obviously that’s good news. However, for St. John’s, it’s a bit of a bigger problem than it looks like at a glance. Last year, Joe Tartamella went with what amounts to an eight woman rotation for the entire year, with Raven Farley appearing to swallow up minutes that were going to Cecilia Holmberg up until Farley became eligible at semester. When you lose three-eighths of your rotation, that’s bad. When you knew you were losing two-eighths of it because they were seniors and you lose your starting point guard to a “I’m not wasting my final season around this dump” grad transfer, then you’ve got a real problem.

This is what St. John’s does under Tartamella, though. He finds a tightly packed group that he trusts and then just rides with them for the whole season. In 2018-19, it was a seven woman group, with spot appearances from Jasmine Sina, and that year Tartamella didn’t even have the random appearances from the rest of his bench. 17-18, same thing, seven woman rotation, and that’s pretty much it. 16-17, he went eight deep. So while at a glance this seems like something that you wouldn’t want to happen, it is something that Tartamella is essentially steering himself into constantly. I suppose, given that direction, that having to figure out how to replace a whole big chunk of your rotation isn’t that big of a deal. St. John’s looks to have five women around who know what they’re doing on the floor, and hey, if you want to count Holmberg in there because she played regularly right up until Farley was eligible, that’s six! At that point, figuring out how to turn maybe two more players into active contributors isn’t that big of a deal.

I think the biggest question for this team is whether or not they can still be a good offensive team without England out there running the show. Her Hoop Stats says that St. John’s was the 32nd best offense in the country last season, and they ranked #33 in points per 100 possessions. The good news is that there are aspects of that where England had no impact. Hitting 77% of your free throws for the 15th best shooting percentage in the country? Nothing to do with England, and quite honestly, she was dragging the average down at 74%. However, St. John’s ranked #54 in field goal percentage, #62 in two-point shooting percentage, #41 in three-point shooting percentage, and #47 in effective field goal percentage. All of that had a lot to do with England’s passing, and that’s something that they have to replace and perhaps replace unexpectedly.

I would like to re-raise my ongoing issue with how Joe Tartamella designs his offense here in the 21st century. Last year, as I mentioned a moment ago, St. John’s was one of the 50 most accurate three-point shooting teams in the country with 35% of their shots going down. However, three-point attempts only accounted for 34% of their shot attempts on the season. Now, in some cases, sure, St. John’s should have shot fewer threes, say, for example, Alisha Kebbe’s 26.6% on 64 attempts. However, Hoppie, Correa, and Nolan were all north of 35% on the year, including 40% from Nolan. Light it up! Fill the skies with long range attempts! You’ve got the shooters to bury opposing teams! And they did not do that. Hoppie did her part, launching more than six attempts per game, but she had more than twice as many three-point attempts as anyone else on the team.

Look, I can’t really criticize Tartamella that strongly because his offense was working! Top 40 type stuff is great! But the Johnnies were not a particularly strong defensive team last year, coming in at #115 in HHS’ defensive ranking and posting a very bad #243 in the country in opposition points per 100 possessions. I’m not saying that shooting threes would have fixed that defensive problem, because obviously it wouldn’t. But, it might have helped balance it out. A couple extra points per game here and there might have made the difference in making the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years. Will there be a big change this year? Probably not! Will I bring this up again when it’s time for Marquette and St. John’s to play because it blows my mind that they’re not using a strength? Almost definitely.