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St. John’s Preview: Is Mike Anderson the answer?

St. John’s has had the talent but not the coaching. Now the talent isn’t at the level it was, but they have a coach who could overcome that.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Florida vs Arkansas
Mike Anderson, both feet planted firmly on the ground.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The enduring refrain of the last several years is that the Red Storm of St. John’s have been as talented a team as college basketball has on offer. In the last two years they’ve beaten very good Duke, Marquette, and Villanova teams. They’ve scored over 100 points, they’ve held a decent UCF team to just 43. What they have not done is make even the slightest impression on the business end of the Big East. In four seasons under Chris Mullin, the Red Storm were 20-52 in conference play and made the field of 64 exactly zero times. All the talent in the world could not overcome what was at times laughably incompetent coaching.

This season SJU is down some talent. Justin Simon, Shamorie Ponds, and Marvin Clark are all gone. That’s 40.6/14.6/9.6 and 98 minutes of court time gone. That’s not something easy to replace and St. John’s is immediately worse off because of it. Regardless of a coaching change, the players have to be there. Anderson has new blood coming in. David Caraher, Damien Sears, and Rasheem Dunn are all transfers that become eligible. Nick Rutherford is making SJU his fourth school, and freshman Julian Champagnie has been starting in exhibition games.

So what does that all mean? Essentially, the Red Storm are going as far as Heron and Figueroa can take them. The difference is that now they have a coach who may gameplan to put them in positions to make winning plays. It is a measure of how bad the coaching was that the Johnnies were the seventh safest team in the nation with the ball and still only the 92nd most efficient. There was just generally no point in trying to turn over a team you knew was going to settle for a bad shot. Fully a quarter of St. John’s shots were two point jumpers, where they shot 35%. At the rim the Red Storm converted 61% of their opportunities, but they eschewed those shots for longer range ones that they were worse at.

What Anderson brings is a commitment to getting a good shot quickly. His teams have generally speaking shot the three well, but rarely. They, however, will play up tempo and look to get the ball inside as soon as possible. On defense, Anderson wants to pressure (four of his Arkansas teams were in the top 40 in turnover percentage), and make possessions drag on. Constant, unrelenting defense is his calling card. In exhibition play, the Red Storm flashed full court pressure, matchup zones, and man to man. It will take some time to reshape a team that has been abject defensively for most of the last four years, but Anderson seems to be the man for the job.

How St. John’s can beat Xavier

Turnovers. It was many the Xavier game last season that turned when the Musketeers simply could not take care of the ball. Now, SJU is going to be trying to force pressure all over the court. If that sounds like a situation that could spiral it’s because you remember last year at the Carnesecca where Xavier turned the ball over on almost a quarter of their possessions and won only because Mullin and his team completely lost the plot late. That gift is far less likely to be given this year.

How Xavier can beat St. John’s

With depth. St. John’s may be able to keep the defensive pressure up, but can they score enough to make that matter? If Xavier stops Heron and Figueroa, where do the Johnnies go for a bucket? Xavier can score. They were “bad” last year and finished 56th in the nation in offense. If teams take away Marshall and Scruggs, they still have Tyrique Jones and Jason Carter working down at the double double factory or Quentin Goodin and Kyky Tandy to deal with. By PRPG (read here if you aren’t familiar) Xavier has four 3+ players and six 2+. St. John’s has one and two at the same places. Now that the coaching is there, the talent loss of last season will hurt all the more.