Time Is of Essence for St. John’s

BY LESLIE MONTEIRO

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

This was more like it.

This was what was expected out of St. John’s this season. A team that would score at will, and a team that would give 40 minutes of hell to the other team.

The Red Storm displayed all that in their 84-63 road victory over Seton Hall Monday night at Walsh Gym. It was their best performance of the season. It was what St. John’s head coach Mike Anderson waited for all season long out of his team.

Everyone expected St. John’s to take the next step and be a team that can make the NCAA Tournament this season after being 17-15 in Anderson’s first season and 16-11 in his second season. It hasn’t turned out that way for them.

The Red Storm have underachieved at 11-7 so far with no Quad 1 victory to show for it. They struggled to beat lower echelon teams such as Fairleigh Dickinson University, St. Francis (Brooklyn) and NJIT in the nonconference season, which should have been a hint that this season would be bumpy. They haven’t exactly shined in Big East competition by going 3-4 so far.

Right now, they are an NIT team at best. They could use a resume win, and they achieved that in this win.

But this will mean nothing if they don’t go on a run here. Going on a five-game winning streak or winning six of seven would be a sign that they turn this season around.

St. John’s faces Villanova, the creme de la creme in the Big East, on Saturday, so this could be a tough task to start a run. Despite that, this should be an opportunity to show how good the Red Storm really is and what they can do the rest of the way. A win against Villanova after a win against Seton Hall could make an impression on the NCAA Tournament committee. Most importantly, a win against Villanova could really spark something within the team.

The Johnnies should take away something from this latest win. They need to play defense to set the tone. They did just that from the start. Granted, they took advantage of a team that clearly was not ready to play in a make-up game that was postponed earlier this season due to COVID. But the Johnnies can’t think about that now. They need to worry about themselves and get their house in order, and that is playing defense.

St. John’s pressed Seton Hall all night, and it resulted in the Hall forcing 20 turnovers in the game that had the Johnnies score 14 points out of it, not to mention the Pirates shot 31 percent.

They also need someone else to take the scoring load off Julius Champagnie. On this night, it was Aaron Wheeler, who led St. John’s and all scorers with 17 points.

Wheeler may be hot at the right time. Over the last five games, he averaged 13.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 47.6 percent from 3-point range. Good performances lead to confidence. Maybe St. John’s got something by inserting him in the lineup.

St. John’s could also use consistent performances from Montez Mathis, Stef Smith and Tareq Coburn. They need to be reliable to score at least 10 points per game moving forward. The three of them combined to contribute 23 points on Monday’s game.

Here’s the best part of this victory: The Red Storm never took plays off. They attacked on defense and offense for 40 minutes. Too many times, they go through lulls to the point they never recover as we saw in their loss to UConn a few weeks ago.

I don’t know what to make of the Johnnies. The talent is there, but they haven’t played like a team all season. Too many guys look for their shots, and they don’t play defense that often.

There’s still time to turn it around. They need to get to 20 wins to make the tournament. It’s feasible. The talent is there to win games. They competed and won their fair share of games these last two seasons. There’s no reason to think they can do it again.

After Villanova, St. John’s plays Providence, Georgetown and Butler. This is where they need to make hay by winning all three games and go from there.

This does not have to be a lost cause as disappointing as this season has been so far. St. John’s can change the narrative by going on a run from now till the Big East Tournament. This is a team that is a far cry from the Chris Mullin teams. These guys play for each other. They are a team that is well-coached.

The clock is ticking now to put it together.

If not now, it may not happen this season.

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