Entering his first season in Queens, Mike Anderson didn’t know what to expect. He was at a new school, in a new conference, in a different part of the country. His roster had just two returning contributors.
A year later — after surpassing low expectations in his first season — much of the mystery is gone. Anderson returns four of his top six scorers, has added several new players who better fit his system and has the kind of depth that will allow his pressure defense to be an even greater factor.
Still, there are questions, namely whether the returning contributors (Rasheem Dunn, Greg Williams Jr., Marcellus Earlington, Julian Champagnie) are ready to replace departed leading-scorers Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa, and whether the newcomers (Posh Alexander, Isaih Moore, Vince Cole) can make an immediate impact. The league’s coaches are skeptical, picking St. John’s to finish ninth. That only added a boulder-sized chip on the Johnnies’ shoulders.
“Of course it bothered us. It’s going to make us work that much harder,” Earlington told The Post. He added: “I think we can finish this year in the top four and I firmly believe that.”
Why St. John’s will make the NCAA Tournament
Returning most of the roster of a 17-win team and adding multiple impactful newcomers, the Red Storm will have even greater familiarity in Anderson’s pressure-based system, carrying the confidence of last season’s strong finish, while again boasting one of the nation’s best defenses. Last season’s promising supporting cast will shine without having to defer to Heron and Figueroa anymore.
Why St. John’s will miss the NCAA Tournament:
As a Big East coach told The Post: “There’s no one there that can just take over a game.” Figueroa and Heron will be missed. Too much will be asked too soon of newcomers such as Alexander, Moore and Cole without any prior Division I experience. Earlington, Williams, Dunn and Champagnie will see more double teams and struggle without the space they were previously given.
3 Key Questions
What can Anderson do in Year 2?
Anderson’s teams make quick leaps. In his second season at UAB, Anderson reached the Sweet 16. In his third season at Missouri, he made the Elite Eight. In his second year at Arkansas, the Razorbacks won double-digit SEC games for the first time in seven years. Anderson has already earned this team’s trust. After finishing second in the nation in steals last season, St. John’s saw his style can succeed.
Who will take the lead?
Last season was built upon the foundation of two returning stars. With Heron and Figueroa gone, St. John’s will have to replace its top-two scorers and leaders. Dunn — who led the team with 3.4 assists and ranked third with 11.9 points per game last season in his first Big East season — provides experience and possibly the greatest scoring threat. The 6-foot-8 Champagnie could play an even bigger role, with the potential to average a double-double and become an All-Big East selection.
Can the shooting improve?
The defense can only do so much. Last season, the Red Storm hit just 40.9 percent from the field, 32.1 percent of 3-pointers and 70.3 percent of free throws. This season, they come back without their top two shooters. Champagnie could develop a stronger perimeter game in his second season. Williams could, too. And if David Caraher can carve out more playing time, or Cole adapts quick, Anderson could have a much-needed threat from deep.
X factor: Posh Alexander
For three seasons, Shamorie Ponds ran the show in Queens. Now, another Brooklyn native could give St. John’s the playmaking point guard it lacked after Ponds’ departure last season. The true freshman point guard has impressed coaches and teammates in practice, appearing ready to make an immediate impact in the Big East. It will be necessary if the Red Storm are to exceed their predicted ninth-place finish in the league.
Games to Watch
St. John’s at Texas Tech (Dec. 3)
One of the few occasions St. John’s will play in front of fans — Texas Tech will be hosting a capacity of around 4,000 per game — will also be one of the Johnnies’ most difficult games. The defensively stingy Red Raiders added impact transfers Mac McClung (Georgetown) and Marcus Santos-Silva (VCU) to a strong returning core and top-10 recruiting class.
St. John’s at UConn (Dec. 11)
Good work, Big East schedule-makers. Lining up these two rivals for UConn’s return debut to the Big East was a nice touch. There’s no doubt this would’ve been played at the Garden if not for the pandemic.
St. John’s vs. Creighton (Dec. 17)
Not much has changed since the two teams played one half of basketball at the Garden in the Big East Tournament. COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc. Creighton is a top-15 team. St. John’s is looking to break through and use the Bluejays as a launching pad.
St. John’s vs. Seton Hall (TBA)
This is a matchup the Johnnies like. Their pressure defense created problems for the Pirates last year, and Kevin Willard’s team has ball-handling question marks after the graduation of its starting backcourt of Myles Powell and Quincy McKnight.
St. John’s vs. Villanova (TBA)
If St. John’s hopes to go dancing, a win over Villanova would be a significant boost to its résumé, like two seasons ago. The Wildcats are loaded and ranked third nationally in the AP preseason poll. They won the two matchups last season by a combined 31 points.
It’s hard to read St. John’s because of so many unknowns. There are a lot of expectations on the newcomers, and hope that the returning contributors emerge. Depth, defense and balance will be the Johnnies’ strengths. They will win games they are picked to lose, but also lose a few they are expected to win. Ultimately, they are a season away, falling painfully short of the NCAA Tournament and having to settle for the NIT instead.