At this point last season, St. John's was struggling to find its way in the wake of a new coach and a patchwork roster, fighting through the non-conference portion of the schedule before winning just one game in Big East play. As Steve Miller once stated: "You know you've got to go through hell before you get to heaven."
Despite it all, signs of hope remained perennially prevalent on the corner of Union and Utopia, and so far; albeit through only two games in this young campaign, the optimism seems to be not only warranted, but justified.
The Red Storm handled Binghamton in a no-frills, blue-collar fashion at Carnesecca Arena Monday night, vanquishing the Bearcats by the final of 77-61 to move to 2-0 on the year before a two-week stretch that takes them first to Minnesota before an ambitious experience in the Battle 4 Atlantis, where they will open with Michigan State before facing one of two reigning NCAA Tournament participants in either Baylor or VCU.
With the first true test of the non-conference season now awaiting St. John's, we send them off for their Midwest swing with some observations from watching them in action as they turned a potentially tense affair into a convincing victory:
Marcus LoVett led all scorers with 23 points in St. John's win Monday night. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/St. John's University Athletics)
1) The new leadership on this team is a joint effort.
There was no true standout on last year's youthful roster in the wake of replacing a program icon in D'Angelo Harrison, but times have changed in Queens. The tag team of Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett has quickly taken control of the offense, and despite both being freshmen; LoVett a redshirt by way of his partial-qualifier status last year, each one has excellent chemistry with the other that belies their tender age.
"Me and him, we always work well with each other," LoVett said of his relationship with Ponds after a game where the two contributed 23 and 21 points, respectively, to the winning cause. "I always find him in certain situations just like he finds me in certain situations. We just feed off of each other."
Their head coach echoed a similar sentiment, although he tipped a slight edge to Ponds when saying the Thomas Jefferson High School product exceeded expectations.
"He, individually, is ahead of what I thought he would be," Chris Mullin said of his highly touted freshman. "He's got great instincts, he's deceptively quick, IQ-wise, being able to pick things up on the court and figure things out. As a young kid coming in, when you're going to throw a whole new system at him, he's been quick to pick it up."
2) At times, shot selection is still lacking discipline.
Chalk that up to youth, because as time goes by and the season rolls on, smarter shots will be found and taken. However, there were instances Monday where the rushed-shot, trigger-happy nature of the Red Storm almost caught up to them. Before a putback dunk by Kassoum Yakwe allowed St. John's to end the first half with a 39-32 advantage, Binghamton got themselves back into the game with a 14-5 run that was largely spurred on by a stretch of eight missed field goals in nine attempts for the Johnnies. The same malady struck again in the second half to pull the visiting Bearcats within four, but a 15-0 run over a span of just over four minutes was enough to put the game out of reach.
3) Small ball might be the Red Storm's greatest asset against smaller lineups.
Mullin stressed sharing the ball, which St. John's did to the tune of a 57 percent assist rate; connecting for 16 helpers on 28 made field goals, and rebounding, a battle won with a plus-2 margin. However, the most success the Red Storm enjoyed over the course of the night may have come with the four-guard lineup employed at various points of the evening. With either Ponds or LoVett at the point, plus Federico Mussini and Malik Ellison on the wings with Yakwe inside, St. John's was able to create its most effective floor spacing and maximize its depth to the fullest extent. Whether it yields similar results against longer and more physically imposing teams remains to be seen, but the four-quick look honed to perfection by Jay Wright's Villanova teams is a formidable weapon in Mullin's arsenal.
4) Back to Ponds and LoVett for a moment.
While their offensive statistics were no doubt impressive, perhaps the most eye-opening facet of their game is the remarkable poise each one possesses. For two freshmen, they seem to be not only more at ease with the added repetitions they get; but to expound on LoVett's claim that the two feed off one another, they also push each other in such a way that is seldom seen between two players at the same position in the same class. As long as they are around, they will be both explosive and fun to watch at the same time, which could cultivate something really special over the next several years.
"We just bring the best out of each other," said Ponds of the chemistry he and his backcourt partner possess, a bond that is already close to rivaling that of veteran tandems who have experience far beyond the two games St. John's has competed in. "We just try to go out there and play our hardest and lead. We may be the smallest guys on the floor, but we have the biggest heart and the biggest voice."
"Just the little energy plays that we make, I feed off of that," LoVett added, with both he and his cohort providing an articulate sense of the game on and off the court. "And he feeds off of that when I do something like that as well, so that's going to bring us along quick."
5) What can we expect from St. John's on their road trip and stint in Atlantis?
Friday night's Gavitt Games matchup with Minnesota, a team who is essentially a mirror image of the Red Storm, will be a telling clash. Richard Pitino and the Golden Gophers are looking to rebound from a disastrous 2015-16 season, and have already started off with two victories heading into Wednesday's meeting with Mount St. Mary's. The two teams faced off in the NIT Preseason Tip-Off two years ago, but only one player on the Minnesota roster; junior guard Nate Mason, is still in the program. The impending meeting with Michigan State in the Bahamas will be a much bigger step up in class, but for the incumbents on the Red Storm roster who were around to face Indiana in last year's Maui Invitational, it is no different. Mullin was not apologetic in dissecting the schedule, but also stressed the concept of team unity.
"I told them, especially on the road, that's when you really need each other," he said. "We have to make sure we understand that."
His two budding stars projected a quiet confidence moments before.
"I believe so," said LoVett when asked if the team was prepared for back-to-back games against Big Ten opponents, beginning with Minnesota. "With our coaching staff and what they teach us, as long as we listen to their principles and their game plan of how we're going to face our opponents, we'll be fine. As long as we're communicating with each other, we're going to be good."