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St. John's is ready to take season by Storm

Chris Mullin, St. John's Univ. head basketball coach

Chris Mullin, St. John's Univ. head basketball coach addresses the team during practice at Madison Square Garden on Sat. Oct. 20, 2018. Photo Errol Anderson Credit: Errol Anderson

The senior leader has NCAA Tournament experience. Two junior guards appear bound for the NBA after this season. Most of the principles have experience playing together. And for the first time in St. John’s coach Chris Mullin’s four seasons, his team has a deep bench.

Simply put: the time has come for the Red Storm to win.

“I think this season is the missing piece to the puzzle of a big picture that Coach Mullin and the guys have laid out for this program,” said senior Marvin Clark II, the Michigan State transfer who averaged 12.5 points a year ago in his debut season with the Storm. “This is the team that will revamp and revitalize the program as a whole.”

St. John’s hasn’t been to an NCAA Tournament since 2015 and has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2000. Mullin’s first two seasons were the wreck they were expected to be, but last season looked like he might have them headed back to the Promised Land. It was a thin Storm team though and losing high-scoring Marcus LoVett Jr. to a season-ending knee injury made competing in the Big East exceedingly difficult. St. John’s lost its first 11 conference games but changes that bode well for this season started to happen.

Shamorie Ponds transformed into a superstar and ended up leading the conference with a 21.6-point average. Clark and Justin Simon elevated their games and figured out what it would take for the hamstrung bunch to win. There were upsets of Duke and Villanova as the Storm won six of their final 10 to finish 16-17. That trio is the core of this season’s Storm and it is joined by significant additions.

None is more significant than 6-5 Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron, who was the Tigers’ leading scorer at 16.4 points per game as they reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Mickey Dixon, a 6-2 Quinnipiac transfer who was the Metro Atlantic’s Rookie of the Year two seasons ago, and 6-9 Sedee Keita, who transferred from South Carolina after it reached the 2017 Final Four, have completed the NCAA-mandate year of sitting out after transferring. Also there is highly-recruited 6-9 freshman Josh Roberts and 6-6 junior college transfer L.J. Figueroa.

“There’s a lot of hype coming into this season and we know that,” said Ponds, who was tabbed Thursday as the Big East’s Preseason Player of the Year in a poll of conference coaches. “We kind of feel like we have a bullseye on all of our backs. All of the other teams in the Big East know that we have a hungry and talented roster this season. Despite all of this, it’s important that we stay focused and level-headed. If we do that, we can be one of the better teams in the league this season.”

Indeed the same poll has St. John’s picked to finish fourth and if the 10-team conference performs as it has, that would mean the Storm should make the NCAA Tournament.

“What’s happened at St. John’s makes me happy for the Big East and happy for Chris,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “We need St. John’s to be good and they are going to be real good. They have the most experience and they look like they’re going to have an incredible season.”

Asked if this is the most-talented group he’s coached at St. John’s, Mullin said it was “a fair assessment,” before adding “The biggest difference in our team is now we have four guys who have played extensively in big games. My experience is that bodes pretty well for a team.”

Still it does feel a bit like this is a moment for St. John’s, even though talented players are now regularly choosing it as a destination. This is Clark’s final season. Both Ponds and Heron worked out for NBA teams in the offseason as they considered entering the NBA Draft and both are likely to go the next time around.

“There’s a good chance [they will go to the draft]. Those guys who go through that process, that’s usually how it goes,” Mullin said. “That also may not happen, too. It’s hard to predict that.”

St. John’s should have several different lineups it can go to that will be able to score, so Ponds said much of the preseason focus has been on the other end of the court.

“We’re all definitely looking forward to winning this season,” Ponds said. “Coach has been preaching on locking in on the defensive end. We know we have the offensive weapons to compete with any team in our league. Team defense is what we look to improve on and that will be the difference when it comes to wins and losses. This team can go really far if we play to our potential.”

“To be honest, anyone who hasn’t seen St. John’s play before should definitely be tuned in to watch us play this year,” said Simon, the Arizona transfer who averaged 12.2 points and 5.1 assists in his first season at St. John’s. “Guys like Mustapha [Heron], L.J. Figueroa, Sedee Keita, Mikey Dixon, and our incoming freshmen will make an impact this season.”

JOHNNIES ON THE SPOT

Shamorie Ponds, 6-1 Jr.

The Brooklyn product averaged a Big East-best 21.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists and was first-team all-conference. He enters the season the favorite for Player of the Year. Before eschewing the NBA draft, he was counseled to improve his play-making and be more efficient. “He won’t have to take as many tough shots,” Mullin said, “and you’ll see his playmaking have bigger impact on the game.”

Marvin Clark II, 6-6, Sr.

The undisputed leader of the team has the experience of playing on Michigan State’s 2015 Final Four team. He debuted for the Storm last season and averaged 12.5 points, 15.1 as it went 6-4 over the final 10 games. “I have a lot of experience under my belt and my confidence is at an all-time high,” he said. “Taking my game to the next step and maximizing my potential is important, but winning this season is the main thing I look forward to.”

Justin Simon, 6-6 Jr.

The athletic playmaker will handle the ball a lot in a three-guard look, flanked by two big scorers. The Arizona transfer debuted for the Storm and averaged 12.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists and is a preseason all-conference pick.

Mustapha Heron, 6-5 Jr.

The Auburn transfer was granted an NCAA waiver to play immediately. He averaged a team-high 16.4 points for the SEC regular-season champion Tigers. He was named to the watch list for the Jerry West Award, given annually to the nation’s top shooting guard. “He had two great years at Auburn. He played a lot of minutes and a lot of great games against good teams,” Mullin said. “That experience is invaluable and you can’t teach that.”

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