Wednesday, February 1, 2017

St. John's gets complete game to comfortably handle Marquette

In one of his more efficient performances at St. John's, Kassoum Yakwe helped spearhead St. John's winning cause over Marquette in what Chris Mullin called a complete game for Red Storm. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/St. John's University Athletics)

NEW YORK -- Last thing I remember, I was running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
"Relax," said the night man, "we are programmed to receive."
"You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave."
- The Eagles, "Hotel California"

Wednesday night's game was one typical of St. John's exploits in recent years, a true just-when-you-think-you're-out, they-pull-you-back-in affair that ended with the Red Storm stringing together their third straight convincing result to wipe out an evisceration at the hands of Seton Hall whose score was closer than the actual proceedings let on.

This latest entry into the ledger, an 86-72 victory over a Marquette team that became increasingly disjointed as the night went on, showed exactly why the Johnnies (11-13, 5-6 Big East) can be so formidable, even if they provide the occasional head-scratcher every so often (looking at you, Delaware State, Penn State; heck, even the annihilation of Syracuse that hardly anyone saw coming) while Chris Mullin finds more moments of clarity this time around than the frustrated impasses that plagued his maiden voyage in charge on the corner of Union and Utopia.

What made the difference on this night, you ask? A fully engaged showing on both sides of the basketball, one in which St. John's decimated Marquette (14-8, 5-5 Big East) to the tune of a 42-20 count inside the paint while forcing the Golden Eagles into a season-high 23.3 percent turnover rate, causing 17 miscues in their 73 possessions. More than that, the home team knew precisely what they were doing and who to disrupt most, rendering freshman Markus Howard and sophomore Haanif Cheatham into six and five giveaways, respectively.

"Defense is teamwork too," Mullin would say afterward. "It takes time to understand guys' tendencies. We always want to pressure the ball, but we can't have five guys running around wild. I think we're getting more comfortable when and where to do that. We always like running up the floor having activity, but also having support. Having ball pressure is great and our guards can do it, our forwards can do it, but more important is having the support behind it. I think that takes as much time, or probably more, than the offensive part. I think we're getting better at that as we move along."

Regarding the interior mismatch, which was immensely assisted by getting Luke Fischer into early trouble and out of a groove he could never reclaim; coupled with Sam Hauser playing out of position against a team who thrives on small ball, the former Olympic gold medalist had this to say:

"A lot of that is attacking the paint in different ways," Mullin said in an educating tone. "Not just posting up, but attacking the paint off the dribble. They're a really good offensive team with great shooters. We thought we were going to be able to score, but the big thing was finding balance and spreading out."

And as the Red Storm ramped up the aggression, Marquette became further uncoordinated, prompting head coach Steve Wojciechowski to offer up a somewhat deep rumination after a second consecutive setback erased any good feelings that may have lingered from last Tuesday's dramatic upset of reigning national champion Villanova.

"The team I coached over the last seven days was very different than the team I coached the seven days prior," the former two-time Mike Krzyzewski disciple (point guard and assistant coach at Duke) told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Matt Velazquez. "We've got to get back to being that team."

Easier said than done, especially in a Big East where the league continues to eat its own while showcasing incredible parity that could be just as strong a curse on Selection Sunday as it is a blessing. Five teams right now are solidly in the NCAA Tournament, with two more in Marquette and defending conference champion Seton Hall still looking to prove themselves worthy. Next up for the former Warriors is a road trip down Interstate 94 to DePaul, never a game you can just automatically look past, before Butler comes into Milwaukee shortly thereafter.

We mentioned Villanova earlier, and speaking of the Wildcats, they welcome St. John's into the Wells Fargo Center for a Saturday night special (cue Lynyrd Skynyrd) that could be a definitive look at how the Red Storm project the rest of the way. Before the trip to Philadelphia, however, we leave you with some observations from a contest whose lasting impression was multifold, with a different contributor in various parts of the evening:

1) Kassoum Yakwe's magnum opus? Quite possibly.
The shot-blocking sophomore was lauded for his above-the-rim potential before he even suited up for the first time in December 2015 against Fordham. The native of Mali was more than a high flyer Wednesday, though, efficiently infusing offense through the first half en route to 14 points and six rebounds, plus three rejections, two assists and a steal in a stat line that checked all the requisite boxes.

"I just said in my mind, 'keep playing hard,'" Yakwe recollected as he was one of four Red Storm players in double figures. "I wasn't really focused on getting on the board. It's a team game. When you play together, you'll get a good result."

And while he admitted a stretch of five consecutive made shots after missing his first take was an inevitable confidence booster, it wasn't the offensive production that was the main objective; but rather pulling out all the stops, by any means necessary. His floor game to complement Bashir Ahmed, (23 points) Marcus LoVett, (18) and Shamorie Ponds (17) was all the more indicative of that goal.

"I know I wasn't playing like the way I did last year, but I just keep practicing, playing hard," Yakwe reiterated. Sometimes it's going to happen. Today was a perfect moment for me."

"I played my a** off," he candidly quipped. "And we got a win."

2) Shamorie gonna Shamorie.
Ponds, despite 18 points, seven rebounds, five assists and four steals to get a jump start on what could be yet another Big East Rookie of the Week award, was not present in the postgame press conference, but his absence did not take away from the impact he made at the end of the first half to give St. John's a decided edge going into the locker room.

Shortly after a conventional three-point play by Ahmed gave the Red Storm a lead it would never relinquish, Marquette was threatening to tip the scales back in their favor during the waning moments of the opening stanza. Clinging to a 38-37 cushion two possessions later, Ponds took control of a LoVett feed to bury a three-pointer to stretch the lead to four points, prompting a Golden Eagle timeout. Coming out of the respite, he stripped Cheatham at mid-court and took it the rest of the way himself for the finish, then built Darien Williams' steal of Howard into a runout and transition slam on the next trip down the floor. All told, it was a personal 7-0 run in only 37 seconds, and it turned a one-point seesaw battle into a comfortable 45-37 advantage for the host Johnnies at the intermission.

3) A good supporting cast is truly invaluable.
Not to diminish the work of Ahmed and Yakwe, but as the backcourt goes, so too does St. John's; or at least, that's how it has gone for most of the year. However, half of the two-headed guard monster made it his business to clarify that the added depth and results truly do make the Red Storm a more potent outfit.

"We're definitely a different team when Kassoum is on fire like he is today, and then Bashir as well," LoVett reinforced. "We've got so many players that could really score the ball that you can't just look at me and Shamorie. You have to look at people like Kassoum and Bashir, and guys like Malik (Ellison) and Federico (Mussini). We've got a lot of weapons on this team. We just have to know how to use them."

"When we're playing like that," the Chicago native added, "I feel like we could beat anybody out there. That's what we need."

While LoVett focused on the offense, his coach heralded the play of two forwards who; even though not registering a point, affected the game in other ways, as Williams and Tariq Owens provided unmatched hustle, the latter amassing 11 rebounds in a Ben Wallace-esque final line.

"I thought Tariq and Darien had a huge impact on the game without hitting a shot," Mullin proudly admitted. "They were really big on defense. Darien didn't have any rebounds, but he was huge boxing out and clearing space so someone else could get it. Tariq finished with 11 rebounds and no points, but he had a huge impact."

"Those stats are a little deceiving," he elaborated. "It goes both ways, sometimes a guy can have a lot of points and have no impact, and I thought those two; without scoring a bucket and actually coming off the bench, had a huge impact on the win."

4) What's changed since the early part of the year?
For starters, the maturation that detractors are quick to dismiss when things do not go ideally has revealed itself, with each facet shimmering in greater quantity as the year ensues.

"The biggest growth I've seen is when our offense is not necessarily clicking, it isn't affecting other parts of the game," said Mullin. "I've told you that forever, but I think it does take time individually to do that, but more importantly when you're sitting in a timeout, you can see guys kind of communicating with each other, having a little more of an idea what they expect from their teammate, what their responsibilities are and sharing information, as opposed to me telling each and every guy what it is. They're trying to get a feel."

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