Thursday, November 2, 2017

St. John's handles exhibition with 84-52 rout of AIC

Marvin Clark II made up for lost time with 12-point, 14-rebound double-double in first action since 2015-16 season as St. John's opened Chris Mullin's third year as head coach with exhibition victory over American International College. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/St. John's University Athletics)

JAMAICA, NY -- It used to seem to me that my life ran on too fast
So I had to take it slowly, just to make the good parts last
But when you're born to run, it's so hard to just slow down
So don't be surprised to see me back in that bright part of town
- Steve Winwood, "Back In The High Life Again"

The dawning of a new season always evokes feelings of excitement and optimism, even for teams accustomed to finishing on the south side of .500 just as much as a perennial championship contender. And when a team is building toward something special, the aura becomes even greater, as fans seek to envelope themselves in every tangible aspect of it.

Look no further than St. John's.

Yes, the Red Storm have spent the past two seasons dusting themselves off and restructuring in the wake of the Steve Lavin divorce, wearing the scars of an 8-24 campaign two years ago and using last year's 14-19 mark to begin the healing process. Picked sixth in the Big East preseason coaches' poll, head coach Chris Mullin attempted to convey cautious confidence; if there is such a thing, but his players subscribed to greater aspirations that may or may have not been tinged with the hope that they could be an NCAA Tournament roster just months after the conference in which they compete heard seven of its own announced by Greg Gumbel last March.

Platitudes and hyperbole aside, the games are played on the hardwood. And although Wednesday night's exhibition contest against Division II American International College, the Massachusetts institution known to astute basketball fans as the alma mater of both longtime St. John's enemy Jim Calhoun; he of the three national championships and the architect of the University of Connecticut entering the sport's upper crust, as well as two-time NBA champion Mario Elie; who won his first title at the expense of the Knicks, will not ultimately appear on the ledger, the residents on the corner of Union and Utopia approached it as though it did. The result ended up being a decisive 84-52 victory that qualifies as a businesslike win in all facets, a wire-to-wire triumph that began with a 10-0 run, and a lead that never shrunk within two possessions before reaching double digits for good with only five minutes and 39 seconds having elapsed on the Carnesecca Arena clock.

"I think for the first time out, (it was) not bad," a succinct Mullin surmised after five of his players reached double figures on the scoreboard, anchored by 21 points from Shamorie Ponds, who reprised his efficiency in an 8-of-13 performance from the floor that also included a half-dozen rebounds. "We shared the ball pretty well, I think we were unselfish. Defensively, we had some breakdowns, but just a good first dry run."

"It was a good test to see where we were at," Ponds elaborated. "We worked hard in the offseason, so I felt like this game set the tone for the other teams. We can't be taken lightly. Any night, anything can happen, so we just gotta go out there and give all our effort."

Ponds' running mate, Marcus LoVett, added 14 points of his own in a display where both of the dynamic sophomore guards were able to play off the ball more frequently while Justin Simon; making his St. John's debut following a year in residence on the heels of his transfer from Arizona, fed the duo early and often in a well-rounded night of work that translated to seven assists. Bashir Ahmed chipped in with 11 points before departing early in the second half due to foul trouble, while the Red Storm's other transfer, Marvin Clark II, fought his way to 12 points and 14 rebounds in his first action since arriving from Michigan State.

Having played for Tom Izzo, rebounding is naturally a key component of Clark's game, as he was undoubtedly a participant in the Hall of Famer's war rebounding drills that see his players don shoulder pads while scrambling for the basketball, a la the National Football League. And when addressing his new media contingent for the first time after a game, the redshirt junior cited another former Spartan when describing the impact he hopes to have in Queens.

"Our coaching staff wants to use me like the Warriors use Draymond Green," Clark discussed, visualizing himself as a two-way weapon in much the same vein as Steve Kerr has utilized the power forward. "That's somebody who I look up to, somebody who I emulate, and that's what I have to do. We've got the scorers, everybody's versatile. I've just gotta bring that influence, that attitude, and keep rebounding like I am. Everything else will take care of itself."

Next up for St. John's is a Sunday afternoon exhibition at former Big East rival Rutgers, a special contest crafted in recent weeks as a fundraiser for hurricane relief efforts that will tip off at 1 p.m. in Piscataway. While Mullin praised the event as a worthy cause that also serves as a valuable lesson of road experience for his group of up-and-comers, we shed light on a few other takeaways from the proceedings on the first night of November:

1) Unchained.
This is in reference to Ponds and LoVett being freed up to play off the ball more often, thanks to the emergence of Justin Simon. Together, the two combined to shoot over 56 percent from the floor, and backed it up with their unmatched transition defense, which helped the Red Storm score 33 points off 21 AIC miscues. The takeaways were also good enough for a 29.6 percent defensive turnover rate, eight points higher than the Big East-leading mark posted by the Red Storm last season. When posed with the question of how well the pair had grown in their new roles, Ponds offered this assessment:

"I believe Justin's gonna take a lot of stress off us," the former Jefferson High School standout stated. "He's an impact player coming from a great program, and I feel like he's going to set the tone for us. He's going to take the stress off us for me and Marcus, so we could just play off the ball and win games."

"I think Marcus and Shamorie have been really receptive," Mullin opined with respect to the two playing off the ball. "They're both really good at it, which helps. It's very unique when you have guys that are so good with the ball that they can be as effective without it. I saw that last year, we weren't able to do it as much because we needed them handling the ball. But in portions of the game where Justin rebounds, they can really, really be dangerous. I think the ability to maintain their effectiveness off the ball is going to be key for us."

2) The other newcomer had a solid debut.
Freshman Bryan Trimble, the latest addition to the roster after decommitting from Florida State and signing with St. John's, had an understated yet effective first outing, scoring six points and adding three steals in 21 minutes off the bench. Although just a freshman and still immersing himself in the process while playing behind the trio of Ponds, LoVett and Simon, he earned praise from his coach and appears to have begun carving out his niche in a backcourt full of diverse talents.

"He's done really well," said Mullin of Trimble. "Like most high school kids, they come in and they learn it's a different pace, a whole different conditioning level. But he's doing well, he's very open-minded and just absorbing everything. The good thing is we have guards in front of him that will teach him, that he can just watch. During drills, he can get behind them and just do what Marcus and Shamorie do. He'll be just fine."

3) The brotherhood.
That was the concept echoed by Ponds and Clark in the postgame press conference, and in some aspects, it is a 180-degree turn from where last year's team looked disjointed at times during the season, a fact that the former acknowledged. And on a team with realistic NCAA Tournament dreams, unity may be the most integral of components if a third trip to the field of 68 this decade is in the offing.

"Last year, I'd say everybody was individual," he proposed. "This year, collectively, we're a whole. It's like family. If one moves, we all move. If we make a mistake, our brothers got our back."

"From last season to now, our program has changed tremendously," said Clark. "Last year, we just had a lot of young guys that tried to figure it out on their own, but now, having guys like me and Justin that played at different programs where the coaches are already established and where there's a winning tradition, there's no man that's alone. We're all together."

"If somebody makes a mistake, like he said," Clark continued, reiterating Ponds' declaration, "we're brothers." "Somebody's there to pick him up, somebody's there to get him right, and I just think that's the biggest thing. We bonded into a family through this offseason, and that's what it's all about. That's what we're preaching here."

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