Thursday, November 9, 2017

5 questions for St. John's

Talented but not always consistent last season, Bashir Ahmed's ability to stay the course for a full 40 minutes each night will be of major importance for St. John's and their postseason prospects in a year Red Storm players and coaches feel will bring a windfall to Queens. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/St. John's University Athletics)

Our season preview week continues on with pieces that focus on the four teams that will comprise the bulk of our coverage. First up is St. John's, who split their exhibition games in preparation for Friday's opener against New Orleans, and a team that still has some concerns to address as Chris Mullin begins his third season at the helm of his alma mater:

1) Just how much will Justin Simon impact the backcourt?
Already entrenched as the de facto starting point guard, the Arizona expatriate made a favorable first impression in last Wednesday's exhibition against American International College, recording seven assists without a single turnover while setting up for Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett to shoot a combined 13-for-23 from the floor in their first major action off the ball. However, that came against a Division II program. In Sunday's hurricane relief exhibition against Rutgers, Simon looked more like a take-charge player, posting 13 points and seven rebounds to complement Ponds' six assists. There is no question who the two primary options in the backcourt are, but Simon has already carved out his own niche in a small sample size by demonstrating the ability to be a facilitator or a scorer, depending on the circumstances each night.

2) Which Bashir Ahmed will show up?
The senior forward had quite the Jekyll and Hyde season last year, or so it appeared if you watched him up close. There were nights where the 6-foot-7 Bronx native lit up the floor and scoreboard (13 straight double-figure scoring games, including a pair of 20-point outings against Marquette), and some others where he was either inefficient or hampered by foul trouble (shooting 3-for-11 in a pivotal road game at Creighton late in the season comes to mind). The two exhibition games this month provide more of the same. Against AIC, Ahmed looked strong before fouling out midway through the second half, but struggled to the tune of a 3-for-11 afternoon against Rutgers even though he managed to keep the fouls under control for the most part. The three-guard attack in most offensive sets should allow Ahmed to play more of a stretch four position, perhaps sliding down to the three in a bigger lineup. Speaking of big...

3) What can fans make of the frontcourt?
Kassoum Yakwe already set off inadvertent consternation by missing the AIC exhibition due to an ankle injury, and managed just one point and four rebounds in 11 minutes against Rutgers. Despite the concern, the junior appears to be a go for Friday's contest, where he will likely come off the bench alongside Tariq Owens. Mullin has made no secret of his love for the spark Owens provides as one of the first reserves in the game, so it is not surprising to see him used in this capacity again. Together, the two will be a change of pace behind Ahmed and Marvin Clark II, the bruising big man from Michigan State who fought to a double-double against AIC before having a rougher go of things against Rutgers. Profiled in depth in this outstanding feature by the New York Post's Zach Braziller, Clark's determination to succeed will be a critical intangible down the stretch when the Red Storm finds themselves in dog fights. All in all, the front line is not perfect, but it is mounds better than it was last year, where St. John's found themselves overmatched in the paint. (Does the game at Seton Hall, where Angel Delgado went for 22 points and 21 rebounds, still ring a bell?)

4) How will the rotation shake out?
Expect a starting lineup of Simon, Ponds, LoVett, Ahmed and Clark to begin the season, with Owens and either Yakwe or Amar Alibegovic as the first off the bench. Having nine scholarship players will test the Red Storm's conditioning throughout the year, especially with the uptempo style that Mullin has implemented thus far. Any major injury down low could be fatal to the lofty NCAA Tournament goal established in the locker room, which is why the Yakwe news last week caused such a stir around the corner of Union and Utopia. Freshman guard Bryan Trimble will see his share of minutes, and will earn a few more with his knack for long distance shooting, but should not be expected to carry a massive load with Ponds and LoVett ahead of him in the pecking order.

5) Which games will be appointment viewing?
For sentimental value and the latest chapter of a storied rivalry, Georgetown's visit to Madison Square Garden on January 9 headlines this answer. Mullin and Patrick Ewing facing off as coaches for the first time after their decades of encounters as college and NBA adversaries sells the story itself, not to mention the Red Storm looking to take the next step in their rebuild against a Hoya program shaking the dust off and slowly emerging from the morass of the John Thompson III era. Duke coming to the Garden on February 3 is the marquee name on the non-conference slate, as the preseason No. 1 Blue Devils take on St. John's for the first time since 2015, when Mike Krzyzewski won his 1,000th game at the expense of the Red Storm and then-head coach Steve Lavin. Older members of the fan base are no doubt looking forward to the local clash against Iona in the December 17 Holiday Festival, which features Tim Cluess going up against the program he once played for, while both contests against Seton Hall (December 31 in Newark, February 24 at MSG) will be appropriate barometers for just how far St. John's has progressed. Pay close attention to January 30, when nationally ranked Xavier comes to Carnesecca Arena. The Red Storm have six of their nine Big East home games on campus this season for various reasons, and the impending arrival of the Musketeers is a potential upset special in the making, similar to Butler's loss at the end of December last season. Carnesecca has been known for its imposing effect on visiting teams, and a loss for Xavier would not be the least bit shocking.

Prediction: 19-12, 9-9 Big East

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