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Maybe St. John’s has the goods to be good

Leslie Monteiro

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Here’s a stat that stands out in the St. John’s Red Storm’s 84-65 victory over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights Friday night at Rutgers Athletic Center: Shamorie Ponds had only eight points for St. John’s in this contest.

It would have been a bad thing for St. John’s if the Big East preseason Player of the Year had that type of output two years ago or last year. For the Johnnies to win or have a chance back then, he had to score 15 or more points.

It wasn’t a problem on Friday night because he had help from couple of transfers and his other teammates in the Gavin Tipoff Games. Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron scored a game-high 27 points and JUCO transfer LJ Figueroa scored 23 points in leading St. John’s to the victory against a young and raw team. For good measure, Marvin Clark II (last year’s Michigan State transfer) scored 12 points and Justin Simon scored 10 points.

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This is what is most encouraging about this victory by the Red Storm: They don’t need Ponds to be the guy now that he has a supporting cast that can shoot well. The talent is so much better now that St. John’s should be better than the last three years. This is by far fourth-year St. John’s coach Chris Mullin’s best team. From watching this game, it’s easy to discern why they are highly touted and why they could finally play in the NCAA Tournament this March.

The Red Storm shot 50 % at the three-point line on 16-of-32 shooting, and they shot 46.7% on 28-of-60 shooting. That was why they won. Everyone contributed for them.

It’s the type of performance Mullin needs every game to show he has St. John’s on the right track. He certainly has the players that can get it done.

Yes, they beat Rutgers, but from watching their players, they have the athleticism and the shooting touch to score points this season. It’s not a one-man show anymore. There’s more substance to style with this roster.

Now it does not mean Villanova has to worry about St. John’s dethroning them for Big East supremacy. Still, St. John’s has to start from somewhere. It’s been an awful run for them these last few years as they have been unwatchable all around.

St. John’s needs game-changers and difference makers to be a good team again. They haven’t had one in a long time. Mullin was hired to recruit these types of players. He may have struck gold in Figueroa and Heron by the way they shot the ball from the arc.

It wasn’t just their shooting that helped the Johnnies. It was their defense. For Figueroa to have 11 rebounds and Heron to have six rebounds, that’s impressive. Even Simon sacrificed his offense to play defense, and it was good enough to get nine rebounds.

The average St. John’s fan will be excited about the team’s potential on offense, but what’s more important is they have players who can play defense. Shooting comes hot and cold, but defense comes from a strong work ethic that could be a difference maker between wins and losses. Defense never goes away if the players are trained to have the right tendencies to play it.

St. John’s talent was more billed on what the players could do offensively, but if the Johnnies are going to be a tournament team, their defense will have to be the one that makes the difference.

Their defense forced Rutgers to take hideous shots throughout the game. Granted, Rutgers has several underclassmen taking their lumps as they learn the game, but St. John’s of the last few years would have given Rutgers so many second and third chances to score.

We won’t know what the Red Storm will be until they play Seton Hall, Marquette, Georgetown and Villanova to start conference play. The nonconference games in college basketball might as well be exhibition games in November and December. Teams are busy finding its way at that time.

Still, don’t tell St. John’s that nonconference games are meaningless. They need these games for confidence purposes. Every game matters. Put it this way: If St. John’s lost to Rutgers, criticism on the players and Mullin would be rampant. In a way, it was a must-win game for St. John’s.

The Red Storm know how good they can be. They expect to win when they are on the court rather than hoping to win. It’s a refreshing change to what it used to be.

Just maybe St. John’s can make the basketball season in New York interesting with the Knicks being awful as usual.

Leslie Monteiro is a syndicated sports columnist who writes about the Tri-State area teams for the Upstate Courier. He is based in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and can be reached on Twitter @MongoGoesInSane.

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