The weekend started extremely well for St. John’s and ended in similar fashion. In between, there were several moments of disappointment. The result was a 1-1 performance in the Hall of Fame Tip Off at Mohegan Sun Arena. It began with a 13-point loss to Arizona State and finished with a bench-fueled 15-point victory over UMass.
Below are my six takeaways from two days in Connecticut with St. John’s:
o I thought this tournament would reveal a lot about this team, and to an extent it did. It was up and down, which is likely how this year will go. St. John’s is depending on a lot of inexperienced players, specifically sophomores Josh Roberts, Marcellus Earlington and Greg Williams Jr. Point guards Nick Rutherford and Rasheem Dunn transferred up and aren’t used to the speed and length of high-major basketball. That was evident against Arizona State, when the duo committed seven turnovers. The same can be said for David Caraher. It’s an adjustment period for all of them. And when star senior Mustapha Heron is struggling, as he currently is, it puts even more on their plate. That’s why Sunday, albeit against a weaker opponent, was so encouraging. You saw all of them, aside from Dunn, really take their game up a notch. They’re going to need to have short memories playing in the Big East.
o Speaking of the Rutherford and Dunn dynamic, a funny thing happened when Dunn was cleared. A lot of fans expected Rutherford to be cast aside. The former Monmouth guard clearly doesn’t have the offensive ceiling of Dunn, but he’s the better defender and has more of a point guard’s mentality. He was St. John’s MVP against UMass, controlling tempo and playing terrific defense. I actually think the duo can be used together more, which would allow Dunn to focus on his strength, which is scoring and getting into the lane.
o Heron is not right. It was a lost weekend for the senior, who produced just 11 points in the two games. Against Arizona State, he shot just 1-of-8 from the field and I felt he was forcing it way too much, taking shots that weren’t there. I liked his game on Sunday better, when he was out there. Foul trouble limited him to just 16 minutes. He was letting the game come to him, not forcing shots. His jumper, for whatever reason, just isn’t there right now. He tried driving more, which led to a key offensive foul. St. John’s isn’t talented enough to beat quality teams without production from the 6-foot-5 guard. Coach Mike Anderson admitted Saturday they need to get him the ball in different spots to score. Maybe running him off screens for open looks, like Seton Hall does with Myles Powell, could help.
o I can’t tweet about Roberts without it being pointed out to me how the previous staff mismanaged him last year. I get it, fans see how well the 6-foot-9 sophomore is playing, averaging 8.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks through seven games, and believe he should’ve been out there a season ago when St. John’s was hurt in the paint so often. Now I do think he should’ve played more than he did, but it’s also clear Roberts dedicated himself in the offseason to getting stronger and improving his conditioning. Anderson said he’s one of his fastest players. Both can be true: Roberts could’ve played more last year, but at the time he was nowhere near the player he is now. Perhaps more importantly, spending so much time on the bench was a motivational factor.
o Freshman Julian Champagnie is a keeper. He belongs. He’s already a Big East-level defender and rebounder on the wing. He has a habit of being in the right spot at the right time. He was St. John’s best player against Arizona State, notching 15 points and seven rebounds, and was pivotal in the big second half against UMass with some timely baskets. It got him named to the all-tournament team. One play in particular stood out to me. Champagnie wasn’t in position to grab a defensive rebound, so instead he tipped it a few feet to his right to Heron. Most players try to grab it with one hand, but he had the basketball IQ not to. Heady player. “He’s better than I thought,” one Division I coach in attendance told me. Another said: “Biggest thing that I like is he competes and doesn’t care that’s he’s a freshman.”
o I second-guessed Anderson on Saturday, believing he went too long with his bench after building an early 15-2 lead over Arizona State. The unit struggled and the Sun Devils got back in the game. Sunday proved he was right. Without those minutes, maybe St. John’s does not rally to beat UMass. Bottom line: Anderson is going to keep playing 10 guys. He’s building depth. When asked about his bench Sunday, the new St. John’s coach had a telling answer, saying his reserves are going to get quality minutes.
“That can only make them quality players,” Anderson said. “I’m still trying to figure out what I do have.”
As I wrote earlier, there’s a lot new about this St. John’s team. There will be plenty of peaks and valleys. This weekend was a perfect example.