St. John’s most important player, Posh Alexander, was out this week. Arguably its third-best player, Greg Williams Jr., has battled back issues that have significantly limited him the second half of the season. It’s key senior, Rasheem Dunn, started very slowly after a concussion in the opener.
This season has not gone according to plan. Everything didn’t fall into place. And yet, St. John’s significantly surpassed expectations. It was picked to finish ninth in the Big East and wound up fourth. It will enter the Big East Tournament in the NCAA Tournament picture when an NIT bid would’ve been a strong season. It could have the conference’s Coach of the Year (Mike Anderson), Player of the Year (Julian Champagnie) and Freshman of the Year (Alexander).
No matters what happens Thursday against Seton Hall, whether St. John’s goes dancing or has a strong run in the NIT, this year was a smashing success.
Full stop. St. John’s fans could not have expected anything more. Anderson and his staff have gotten everything out of this roster. To go 10-9 in the Big East, particularly after starting 1-5, speaks volumes of his staff and group of players. Remember, Champagnie is only a sophomore and Alexander just a freshman. More players who fit Anderson’s style are coming next year. This program is trending in a good direction.
Before the come-from-behind wins over Providence and Seton Hall in which St. John’s outscored their two opponents by an absurd 104-59 in the second half, I wrote that this week would reveal a lot about this team’s future. It would determine not only how we look at them, but what we can expect moving forward.
St. John’s showed grit, tenacity, determination and resolve. Providence and Seton Hall looked like they didn’t want to play at times in the second half. The Johnnies just outworked them.
The culture has been created, the foundation has been set. There are real expectations now. A strong offseason — that means adding a legitimate big man — and this could be a top-25 team next year. This season set this program up for real big things.
Williams’ numbers weren’t eye-popping this week. He scored 26 points in the two victories. But his value was so much more than that. St. John’s needed big minutes from him with Alexander out, and the junior delivered them. His defense was strong. He was a huge factor on the glass on Saturday with five boards. He seemed to score when it was really needed. Most of all, he showed terrific leadership. Williams is still in pain. You can see it by the way he grimaces after taking hard falls. His lower-back issues aren’t going away without a few months of rest. He’s not only playing through discomfort, but doing so efficiently and showing his teammates how important this team is to him.
Let’s break down the NCAA Tournament picture for this team, since I get asked about it every few seconds on Twitter. I think two more wins are needed. Right now St. John’s has six Quad 1 and 2 victories, two of the former and four of the latter. It has two big wins over Villanova and UConn. The overall record in those games is 6-8. That’s not great, but it’s really not the problem. Neither is the lowe NET rating of 67. St. John’s was 73 the last time it made the tournament two years ago. The issue is the two bad losses — at home to Marquette and DePaul, the dreaded Quad 4 loss. It’s a blotch on the résumé that few, if any, bubble teams have. The Johnnies are closer to the tournament, I believe, than most Bracketologists seem to have them. Beat Seton Hall Thursday and the Johnnies are definitely in the conversation. Get to the Big East Tournament title game, and they may very well be in. It’s hard to see the committee taking just three Big East teams, and if St. John’s does well this week at the Garden, it will be clear it belongs as the fourth team.
There have been games I’ve wondered about Anderson’s substitution patterns. His overreliance on reserves. I still remember the BYU game at Mohegan Sun when I thought he went too deep into his bench for too long, and it cost him control of the game.
But clearly there is a reason he’s never had a losing season and I’m just a reporter. He clearly knows what he’s doing.
Just look at this week, and the production that bench provided. John McGriff — the fan base knows the 5-foot-10 guard as “Crime Dog” — was instrumental in both comebacks with his pressure, on-ball defense. Saturday night, recently buried big man Arnaldo Toro contributed. Anderson remained confident in Marcellus Earlington despite his struggles, and the junior has been essential lately. Freshman Dylan Addae-Wusu wouldn’t be such an important factor if not for his early playing time. Everyone on the roster is prepared when his time comes.