Outside of the Islanders and Seton Hall Pirates basketball, New York’s winter sports teams offer slim pickings. The Knicks are tanking by losing to increase their odds of winning the No. 1 pick for the right to draft Duke’s Zion Williamson, and the Nets are a middling playoff team at best with no upside. The Rangers are rebuilding, and the Devils have been struggling to gain traction from last season’s playoff appearance.
But there is something New York sports fans can latch onto this winter. Believe it or not, it’s the St. John’s Red Storm men’s basketball team that offers diversion before pitchers and catchers from the Yankees and Mets report to spring training. Talk about fresh meat.
The Red Storm finished the nonconference schedule by going 12-0, and they could have beaten Seton Hall on Saturday night at Prudential Center if not for an inadvertent whistle call on L.J. Figueroa redirecting the Hall’s inbounds pass to teammate Mustapha Heron in what appeared to be a game-clinching play for the Johnnies, but he was ruled out of bounds when he never actually was. This give the Hall another chance on offense, and it set up Shavar Reynolds to hit a 3-pointer that gave the Hall a 76-74 victory over St. John’s.
No matter. The Red Storm showed enough substance to prove they are a team worthy of participating in the NCAA tournament this March. They defend, shoot and hustle, which is something that has been unheard of in recent memory. They displayed all that in their 89-69 victory over No. 16 Marquette on Tuesday night at Carnesecca Arena.
Not only did St. John’s dominate a good opponent, but they also showed their mettle in response to a victory they felt was stolen away by the refs on Saturday night.
Make no mistake. This was a big game for the Red Storm. They needed to show that they are good as they have been since non conference season, and they had to show they can handle adversity such as Saturday’s frustrating loss. This was a game that defined the team’s growth. If anyone wants to look at back at what made St. John’s good, it was this game.
Credit St. John’s fourth-year coach Chris Mullin for having his team ready to go from the beginning. It showed by how well they prepared against Marquette by knowing their tendencies on offense. They knew when to be in a position to force Marquette to turn the ball over, which they did 12 times in this contest. They also forced their opponent to take bad shots by the way they guarded their counterpart’s guards.
Shamorie Ponds showed why he earned the Big East Preseason Player of the Year with his play and why he won the Haggerty Award this past season for being the best college basketball player in the metropolitan area. He led by action by leading St. John’s to a 13-5 start to start the game. He did it by hitting a layup, executing a three-point play (layup and a free throw), shooting a 3-pointer and making another three-point play (layup and a free throw). He also grabbed three of his seven rebounds early on to jumpstart the team.
Ponds finished the game with 26 points, five assists and seven rebounds. With him leading the way, it was a matter of time until Marvin Clark II, Justin Simon, Heron and Figueroa joined him in scoring in double figures in the second half.
In a game St. John’s needed him in a game they had to win, he came through. It’s been a long time since St. John’s had a star that could lead the way after D’Angelo Harrison, Rysheed Jordan, Sir’Dominic Pointer, Anthony Mason and Eugene Lawrence couldn’t do it. It was a sight for sore eyes. It’s like this actually happened that one had to believe it to see it.
Ponds has that shooting touch that gives him the ability to rise in any game.
Quite frankly, Ponds is the best player St. John’s had since Ron Artest. They haven’t had that transcendent player like him in quite some time. He is why not only St. John’s is good now, but he can take them as far as the Sweet 16.
It’s only fitting Ponds and St. John’s are having success now because he was Mullin’s first ever recruit to turn a struggling program around.
If there is any reason to watch the Red Storm this winter besides the fact they are good, it’s to see how much better Ponds can be. The upside for both are huge. If Ponds keeps playing well, St. John’s benefits the most, as both go hand-in-hand to success.
What’s great about Ponds is that he always wants to be better, and he’s never satisfied. He’s a gym rat. Not only does he want to be the best offensive player in the country, but he also wants to be the best defensive player in the country. These are cliches, but it rings true, especially when players like Harrison, Jordan and Pointer do not seem to care much about improving their game the way Ponds does. He is more invested on making the program great than any of those guys.
The Red Storm know how good they are. In their mind, they did not need Saturday night or Tuesday night to show they are not the same old St. John’s. This game was more about St. John’s fans than the team in which fans had to see for themselves that St. John’s are a team for them to invest in the cold months of upcoming winter.
St. John’s certainly made an impression, and so did Ponds.
Both are a legitimate box-office draw, and both have entered the conscience and heart of a New York sports fan.
St. John’s story has become a revelation in a city where college basketball has been in a need of resuscitation.