The third year of a rebuild is always critical in college basketball. Progress no longer is being measured in recruiting and on-court effort alone. Winning results and getting into the conversation for an NCAA Tournament berth matter much more.
Under third-year coach Chris Mullin, St. John’s seems to have the pieces to get both. The Red Storm returns all three of its double-figure scorers from the squad that went 14-19 and 7-11 in Big East play. And it adds a pair of transfer from blue blood programs making this Mullin’s most-talented group yet.
Arizona transfer Justin Simon and Michigan State transfer Marvin Clark II both opted to leave the programs they originally chose over a year ago. NCAA transfer rules forced them to sit out last season, but at least they didn’t do it alone. “It was good not to be alone in going through that, missing out on a year of playing,” Simon said. “And going through the transfer process together, we pushed each other to get better when we worked out every day.”
“We had plenty of conversations about what the team would be when we start playing,” Clark said. “I think we could be a really good team.”
Simon is getting his second bite in the Big Apple after his freshman year at Arizona turned out to be his most disappointing. The Temecula, California, product was one of the nation’s most coveted point guards when he was finishing at Wolfeboro (N.H.) Brewster Academy and chose the Wildcats.
But little went right there. He averaged a meager 2.3 points in 7.5 minutes of 24 games. He said “I wasn’t adapting” to coach Sean Miller’s precision system and realized a move was needed. The appeal of playing in New York and for a Hall of Fame player brought him to St. John’s.
Simon, a penetrating point guard who distributes and yearns to run the break, is likely to shift the Storm’s top returning players — sophomores Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett — to wing positions. Ponds averaged 17.4 points and made 37 percent on three-point attempts and LoVett averaged 15.9 and shot 38 percent on threes.
“It’s very unique when you have guys who are so good with the ball and can be as effective without it,” Mullin said of Ponds and LoVett. “I saw that last year but we couldn’t do it as much because we needed them to handle the ball.”
“They’ll have a lot attention on them because of the years they had last season,” Simon said. “I can bring the ball up. . . . Just come here and be the player I know I am.”
This was first glimpsed in Wednesday’s exhibition win over Division II American International; the 6-5 Simon had seven assists without a turnover and Ponds and LoVett combined to score 35 points on 13-for-23 shooting, including 4-for-8 on threes.
The 6-7 Clark played two seasons at Michigan State and where the Storm will clearly be getting a much-needed physical rebounder, it might benefit even more from his leadership qualities and experience. He played almost 12 minutes a game as a freshman when the Spartans reached the 2015 Final Four and spent much of his sophomore season in the rotation as they won the Big Ten title.
Ponds described him as “everyone’s big brother.”
Mullin likes what both Simon and Clark will be able to do on the court, but added “the fact they have college experience and maturity will be a huge plus for us.”
THREE TO WATCH
Bashir Ahmed, Sr. F
The 6-7 Bronx product returns after exploring entry in the last NBA Draft. Was a double-digit scorer 27 times last season and finishing with a 13.4-point average. Also led the Storm in rebounding with a 5.5 average. Focused this offseason on efficiency and decision-making. Several teammates have described him as the Storm’s “most improved” player.
Marcus LoVett, So. G
After finishing ninth in the Big East in scoring with a 15.9-point average and fourth in assists with a 3.8-assist average, was picked to the conference’s all-Freshman team. Twice scored over 30. In preseason poll of coaches was tabbed all-conference second-teamer. Nicknamed “Bright Lights.”
Shamorie Ponds, So. G
Started all 33 games in his first year, ranked fifth in the Big East in scoring with a 17.4-point average and was picked to the conference’s all-Freshman team. Also averaged 3.1 assists, 2.1 steals and shot 82.3 percent from the free throw line. In the Big East coaches preseason poll, he was picked to be an all-conference second-teamer.
(all times p.m.)
10 New Orleans, 7
14 Central Connecticut, 6:30
16 Nebraska, 6 30*
20 Molloy, 6:30
23 Oregon State, 2#
24 Missouri/Long Beach State, TBA
2 Sacred Heart, 4:30
5 Grand Canyon, 11:30
8 Arizona State, 8
17 Iona New York, 4:30
20 Saint Joseph’s, 4:30
28 Providence, 7
31 at Seton Hall, TBD
Wed. 3 at Creighton, 8
6 DePaul, 2
9 Georgetown at MSG, 6:30
13 Villanova at MSG, 8
Wed. 17 at Xavier, 8:30
20 at Georgetown, noon
23 Creighton, 8:30
27 at Butler, 2:30
30 Xavier, 8:30
3 Duke at MSG, noon
Wed. 7 at Villanova, 7
10 Marquette, noon
14 at DePaul, 9
21 at Marquette, 8:30
24 Seton Hall at MSG, noon
28 Butler, 9
3 at Providence, TBD