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2021-22 Big East Basketball Summer Check-In: St. John’s Red Storm

What is the ceiling for a team with just three notable returning players, two of whom were amongst the best players in the league last year?

Big East Tournament Quarterfinals: St. John’s vs Creighton
Look, I’ll stop using the picture when it stops being funny, okay?
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Team: St. John’s Red Storm

2020-21 Record: 16-11 overall, 10-9 Big East

2020-21 Big East Finish: Tied for fourth with Seton Hall, won the tiebreaker for the #4 seed in the conference tournament by splitting with Villanova.

Final 2020-21 KenPom Ranking: #69

Postseason? Nope, and I have to wonder if they would have had a shot at the reduced size NIT if not for a late season misstep against DePaul. We can all understand what that’s like, right, Marquette fans?

Key Departures: The Johnnies have lost five of their top seven scorers, two of their top three rebounders and three of the top five, and two of their top four assist men. Greg Williams (9.5 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists), Rasheem Dunn (9.4/2.9/4.0), Isaih Moore (9.2/4.8/0.8), Vince Cole (8.7/2.6/1.1), and Marcellus Earlington (6.8/4.1/0.7) are the scorers who are no longer with the program. The rebounding guys and assists guys are all in that group one way or another. Cole and Earlington were two of the three guys who appeared in all 27 games this past season, which is a big deal since no one started in all 27 and no one even started in every single game that they appeared in for the Red Storm.

Dunn was the only senior out of the group, and he elected to take his COVID-bonus season at Robert Morris. Cole, Williams, and Earlington were all juniors last year, while Moore was a sophomore. I don’t know what conclusion you want to draw from guys bouncing from SJU to Coastal Carolina, Louisiana, San Diego, and Southern Miss respectively with eligibility remaining, but there’s probably a good one. Well, one that makes sense at least, even if it’s not good for St. John’s, that is.

Key Returners: Of the five guys from last year’s roster that will be back in a red and white uniform again this fall, only three of them qualify in this department. Quite obviously, the most notable one is Julian Champagnie, who flirted with entering the NBA Draft before electing to return for his junior season in Queens. After averaging 19.8 points and 7.4 rebounds to lead the Johnnies in both categories last season, there’s a decent-to-good chance that Champagnie could be Preseason Big East Player of the Year when October rolls around. It may depend on how the Big East coaches feel about the overall outlook for St. John’s, though, and with just three notable returning guys, that might not help Champagnie here.

Posh Alexander, the 2021 Big East Freshman of the Year, returns for his sophomore season as well. Alexander was the only other Red Storm player to average in double-digits last season, getting his team 10.9 points per game along with 3.4 rebounds and a team high 4.3 assists per game. He was the clear and obvious winner for FOY at the end of the regular season after the Johnnies went 9-3 down the stretch after starting the year 7-7 overall and 2-6 in Big East play.

The other returning guy for St. John’s is Dylan Addae-Wusu. If you’re saying “wait, who?” that’s pretty fair. No one is going to confuse his 6.5 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 2.4 assists for record breaking numbers. However, the 6’4” guard from the Bronx did play 20 minutes a night and he did play in all 27 games last season, something that Alexander and Champagnie can not say.

Key Additions: I will tell you that the Johnnies have the #63 recruiting class in the country according to 247 Sports, which makes them the second worst recruiting class in the Big East ahead of only Providence. They have no top 200 prospects amongst their three incoming freshmen, and so by default, I don’t think we can call any of them “key” heading into the season. Make me look stupid in March, guys!

There are a whopping six transfers on this roster. We’ll start with Esahia Nyiwe if for no other reason than he technically was at St. John’s in the spring. He was supposed to be at Texas Tech last season, but .... something happened that had him leaving school before the season started. Officially, the 6’10” Ethiopian is a junior according to the St. John’s roster after spending two years in the junior college ranks. In 2019-20, he averaged 8.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game along with 2.3 blocks.

Montez Mathis, Joel Soriano, and Aaron Wheeler all arrive in Queens with eligibility remaining past this season. Mathis has been a regular rotation guy at worst for Rutgers in the past three seasons, starting in 66 of his 90 games. 8.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.0 assists per game aren’t world-breaking numbers, and his career 28% three-point shooting percentage is straight up bad, but if he can play over 20 minutes a night in the Big Ten, he can probably hack it just fine in the Big East. Soriano has been at Fordham for the past two years, starting in the back half of his first year and then starting in every one of the Rams’ 14 games last year. He has always been able to rebound the ball well, and the scoring ability popped up in 2020-21. A double-double threat (10.4 points, 9.2 rebounds) every night in the A-10, the 6’11”, 250 pound Yonkers native will give the Red Storm an inside presence that they didn’t really have last year. That brings us to Wheeler, who snagged rotation minutes for Purdue in each of the past three seasons. He was never a guy who was depended on to do much at 4.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in 95 appearances, but 16.4 minutes per game in the Big Ten ain’t nothing to sneeze at, either.

That brings us around to the two guys listed as Graduate Students on the roster, both of whom have spent four years in college hoops already. I presume this means that they’re both COVID-bonus year guys, but I’m also not in charge of things at the NCAA. Anyway, after an uninspiring first year of college at St. Bonaventure, Tareq Coburn transferred to Hofstra where he put together a nice three-year career. 10.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in 90 games for the Pride is pretty good, and he averaged 15.1 points per game this past season. He can definitely hit the three-ball with a career mark of 40.1%. Stef Smith is a two-time all-America East performer after averaging 10.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game in 115 games at Vermont. Those numbers sound much better when you toss out his 11 minutes per game as a freshman for the Catamounts: 13.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 39% from deep, too. Marquette fans in particular are really hoping to ignore Smith’s freshman season, since he went 6-for-6 from long range for a team high 20 points in MU’s 91-81 victory over Vermont in December of 2017.

Coach: Golden Gate Mike Anderson, entering his third season at St. John’s and 20th overall as a Division 1 head coach. He has a record of 33-26 (15-22 Big East) with the Johnnies and 403-227 overall and has never finished a season with a losing record.

Outlook: If you’ve been reading all of the Big East team previews in the series so far, I think it’s safe to say that you might have noticed a theme up until now running through most of them: There are an awful lot of questions about almost every team in the league, at least the ones we’ve talked about. However, up til now, the question marks have been hovering over things that are potentially fatal flaws in the teams. Is Butler actually going to be better just because they bring back all five seniors for their extra year of eligibility? What is Connecticut going to do without James Bouknight to drive things forward? Can the freshmen make an immediate impact for Creighton? Will Providence find a point guard and someone to replace David Duke’s production?

You get the idea. If those questions end up with negative answers, they are going to lead to very bad seasons for the teams involved.

St. John’s is not different than their league-mates this year in that there are a lot of questions to be asked about how things are going to go in 2021-22. The difference here is that the Johnnies’ questions don’t point at things that could potentially make or break their season. They have Julian Champagnie who is going to be, at the absolute worst, a unanimous selection for the preseason all-conference team and is almost assuredly going to get Preseason Player of the Year votes if not actually get the award. They have Posh Alexander, who has a legitimate case to get votes to be on the preseason all-Big East team, and if the league announces a preseason First and Second Team, he’ll almost definitely be one of the 10 guys honored.

If you have two of the 10 best players, at the very least 15 best, in the league heading into a season, you’re probably going to be fine! It’s really hard to have a bad season at that point! The problem with St. John’s is that they have almost no reliable known quantities behind Champagnie and Alexander in the rotation. Dylan Addae-Wusu is the only other guy returning for the Red Storm that played regular minutes last season. That gives Mike Anderson three guys that he knows what to expect from them, and that’s just three guys out of somewhere between seven and 10 that you regularly see in a college basketball team’s rotation.

Thus, the big question or questions for St. John’s is “Who is going to play the other 110-120 minutes a night?” They literally don’t know right now! I’m sure head coach Mike Anderson has a plan as to what he wants to do, but as the old adage goes: no plan survives first contact with the enemy. If you prefer Mike Tyson’s version: Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.

If you are inclined to see the most optimistic version of things, then it’s much easier to talk yourself into things working out well for the Johnnies. Tareq Cobeen and Stef Smith come in with pretty solid to strong college careers to this point, and if this is in fact their final year of college hoops, they’ll be motivated to make the best of it no matter what the coaching staff asks them to do. Montez Mathis and Joel Soriano know what it’s like to play big minutes and play notable roles on a team, and the fact that neither guy was necessarily the clear cut #1 guy on their team will most likely help them fit in behind Champagnie and Alexander in the pecking order.

Boom, that’s a seven man rotation right there, and that’s before we even start working in Aaron Wheeler, who knows what it’s like to practice and play in the Big Ten, and Esahia Nyiwe who at least comes into this year with a semester’s worth of practice experience expectations with Anderson and the Red Storm. At that point, if the freshmen can give you anything at all, you’re doing pretty well for yourself. All you need these guys to do is just fill in around Champagnie and Alexander. You don’t need them to be world beaters on their own, just do the other things that lead to wins.

Add in to all of that the fact that you’ve got Mike Anderson running the show. After 19 years of coaching Division 1 hoops, he has never had a losing season with just two .500 years in there. If there’s one thing we can rely on for sure here, it’s that Mike Anderson is going to figure out how to get his collection of players to win basketball games. At that point, it’s just a matter of figuring out how many they’re going to win. Given the number of questions floating over the rest of the league, it sure looks like St. John’s is going to go into the year with an inside track at winning enough games in league play to secure an NCAA tournament bid.