Friday, November 10, 2017

Overall improvement, particularly on defense, propels St. John's into season opener

Through offseason and two exhibition games, St. John's has improved both on and off the court, an accomplishment of pride for Chris Mullin entering season opener. (Photo by Jason Schott/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

JAMAICA, NY -- Chris Mullin has consistently referred to his attempt at resurrecting the basketball tradition at St. John's as a process.

Not one to mince words, the Hall of Famer and Olympic gold medalist has seen his alma mater through the first two years of a rocky tenure, but he and his players have begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel, particularly leading into this season, one where the end game for the Red Storm is a third NCAA Tournament berth within the current decade.

"We had a really good summer and a good fall of preparation," Mullin discerned as St. John's (14-19 in 2016-17) opens its 110th season of basketball by welcoming the University of New Orleans into Carnesecca Arena for the back end of a women's and men's basketball doubleheader, which tips off at approximately 7 p.m. "There was a ton of individual improvement skill-wise. Probably more importantly, we grew together as a team by spending time together, not only basketball-wise, but on a day-to-day basis. Just the blending of skills and personalities, which takes time, has been good."

The infusion of Marvin Clark II and Justin Simon, both of whom sat out last season after transferring from Michigan State and Arizona, respectively, has drawn praise and positive results in the Red Storm's pair of exhibitions this past week, and each has imparted upon the program a dimension that was evidently lacking during year two of the Mullin regime, highlighted by the emergence of Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett.

While the backcourt has taken shape, something that is of a distinct advantage to St. John's facing a New Orleans team (20-12 in 2016-17) that replaces three starters and four of its five leading scorers from a Southland Conference-winning outfit, the front line remains a work in progress. With none of the incumbent forwards on the Privateers' roster standing taller than 6-foot-9, it allows for the Red Storm to mix things up by opting to either trot out their big lineup that includes Kassoum Yakwe and Tariq Owens, or the smaller attack that creates transition opportunities and floor spacing. Either way, senior forward Bashir Ahmed is a critical component of whatever look Mullin chooses to send out on the floor.

"I thought he did a really good job over the summer," said Mullin of Ahmed's development following a junior season rife with peaks and valleys, but an ever-present talent. "First and foremost, I think he saw himself on film and saw some of the things we were trying to enforce. I think he has better control, a better grasp of playing with his teammates, when to attack and move the ball. All that stuff takes time too."

Ahmed is one of many players that has taken a step forward going into the new season, but a collective emphasis on rebounding, mainly on the defensive end, was stressed by the coaching staff in the hopes of a renewed commitment to excellence when the ball is not in the hands of the Red Storm.

"Our improvement areas are really about defensive rebounding," Mullin revealed. "Offensively, we were pretty good last season, and we'll improve this season because we're unselfish. Our big focus is defense. We had some trouble rebounding last year, so that's going to be a big focal point for us."

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