"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Thursday, November 03, 2022

St. John's Preview, 2022-23

St. John's Red Storm

Head Coach: Mike Anderson (50-41 at St. John's, 420-242 overall)

Three-Year NET Average: 65.0

Three-Year kenpom Average: 63.3

Projected 2022-23 T-Rank: 47

Projected Starters: PG Posh Alexander (6'0" Jr), SG Andre Curbelo (6'1" Jr), SF Montez Mathis (6'4" RS Sr), PF David Jones (6'6" Jr), C Joel Soriano (6'11" Sr)

Posh Alexander seeks his first NCAA bid with St. John's

Photo from St. John's Athletics

On paper, an 8-3 non-conference record doesn't look that bad, but as St. John's only won their guarantee games, even losing to perennial ACC bottom-feeder Pittsburgh, the Johnnies' start to the season was a bit concerning for a team many thought had NCAA aspirations. St. John's finished in the middle of the pack in the league, going 8-11 and earning the 7-seed in the Big East Tournament, but they did so almost exclusively by beating non-tourney teams and losing to tourney teams, going 7-1 against the former and 1-10 against the latter. That played to form at MSG, where they beat DePaul before losing to Villanova. Two of their top-three scorers, Julian Champagnie (an All-Big East First Team selection) and Aaron Wheeler are gone.

The most important returner is Posh Alexander. The diminutive point guard is a bulldog on defense and excellent floor general. He's the defensive tip of the spear for Anderson and thrives offensively when he's getting to the rim to both finish and draw fouls. If there's any drawback, it's his mediocre three-point shooting, where he hit just 21.7% of his attempts from deep last year. He is joined this year by Illinois transfer Andre Curbelo, who's an exciting player to watch, though not always for the right reasons. When he's on, Curbelo can be an electric scorer and provider, giving St. John's a pair of transition-oriented guards. But when he's off, he's a turnover machine whose team seems better without him. His 26.7% turnover rate last year was atrocious and Illinois went 13-1 in games he didn't play but just 10-9 when he did. While he was a coveted transfer in New York, Illinois fans were not disappointed to see him go. Montez Mathis is a solid wing defender who is adequate as a third or fourth scoring option. David Jones, transferring in from DePaul, is expected to take the Champagnie load. He certainly had some moments of brilliance last year, but when he was expected to carry the load for the Blue Demons with Javon Freeman-Liberty out, results were erratically mixed. In a seven-game stretch, he had three feast games where he averaged 22.3 points per game on 60.6 eFG% but had equal levels of famine, averaging 6.0 ppg on 19.0 eFG% in the other four. Defensively, Jones is a capable secondary shot-blocker and ballhawk, so he should fit in with what Anderson wants. Up front, Joel Soriano returns to man the middle. In his first year at St. John's, he was a high-efficiency, low usage scorer who was able to rebound on both ends and served as an excellent rim protector. Off the bench, look for Dylan Addae-Wusu and Rafael Pinzon to provide shooting and back court depth while Eshia Nyiwe and O'Mar Stanley rotate in up front.

Mike Anderson played for Nolan Richardson, then sat on a bench next to him for twenty years at two programs, so it's no surprise he's adapted Forty Minutes of Hell. St. John's comes at you in waves, flying around on the defensive end to create chaos and turnovers, then getting out and scoring in transition. Alexander embodies that as the ideal defensive leader, and they have enough depth to apply constant pressure. The question is what happens in the half-court. When St. John's didn't turn teams over, they struggled. They aren't a great man defense, give up too many second opportunities, and while they are aggressive shot-blockers, that leads to a high number of fouls and opponent free throws. On offense, this looks to be a positively god-awful shooting team. In terms of players that made 10+ three-pointers last year, they lost four of their top-five in terms of makes and Dylan Addae-Wusu is the only returning player who shot over 30% from deep. In addition, Curbelo (17.6%) and Jones (29.7%) aren't exactly marksmen so on bad nights St. John's can shoot itself out of games in the half-court. At his best, Curbelo may be able to help that as he is a creative passer who can thread needles others can't even see, but he can also fire passes into the stands and to opposing players.

St. John's looks like a team capable of competing for an NCAA bid on paper, and Mike Anderson has never had a losing season in his two decades as a head coach. Those records, however, are largely built on non-conference play. He's just 23-33 in the Big East and in his sixteen high-major seasons at Missouri, Arkansas, and St. John's he has only been more than a game above .500 on four occasions. The Johnnies' pressure will put some teams off their game and allow them to win a game or two they shouldn't, but with a player like Curbelo that chaos could work against them. This is a team that wants to play erratically, but Curbelo is a player who is at his worst when the game is most frenetic. Further, Jones is fine when the pressure isn't on him, but as noted above, he didn't always rise to the occasion in the past when DePaul needed him to be that focal point. Expect the Johnnies to finish in the bottom half of the league once again. If all breaks right and Curbelo and Jones have transformative seasons, they may find themselves on the right side of the bubble, but more likely this is a team that will be playing in the NIT, hoping to end their season at home in MSG.

Marquette Memory: Marquette fans will fondly remember the last time they saw Andre Curbelo. The Golden Eagles were competitive, holding on to a narrow 28-27 lead at halftime, but an 11-1 run early in the second half soon gave the advantage to the Illini and they pushed the lead to 58-46 with 10 minutes to play. Then Marquette stormed back, riding a 9-0 run to get it back to a single possession. It was a battle from that point, culminating with Tyler Kolek's steal and layup, on which he was fouled by Curbelo. Illinois had one last chance, but Curbelo tried to drive by Stevie Mitchell and instead turned into Kur Kuath, who stole the ball and quickly got it out to Justin Lewis to seal the victory.

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