When a team is looking for a breakthrough season, it cannot stumble out of the starting blocks. St. John’s has higher expectations in this third season under coach Chris Mullin and it got off to the start it sought on Friday night. The Red Storm handled New Orleans with relative ease in a 77-61 season-opening win before 4,921 at Carnesecca Arena.
St. John’s led for 39 of the final 40 minutes and, though it did see a late 22-point lead slashed to 11, the margin was double digits over the final 17.
“We’re glad to have [increased] expectations for improvement but you still have to go out and do it,” Mullin said.
Returning standouts Marcus LoVett, Shamorie Ponds and Bashir Ahmed blended together nicely with the big newcomers: Michigan State transfer Marvin Clark II and Arizona transfer Justin Simon. Lovett had 23 points, including five three-pointers, and Clark equaled a career high with 15 points, shooting 5-for-6, to pace the Storm.
“[Clark] is going to get better because he hasn’t played,” Mullin said, referring to the one year Clark sat out because of NCAA transfer rules. “He’s definitely a threat.”
Ponds had 12 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Ahmed added 10 points and Simon nine.
“[Clark and Simon) bring so much energy to our team, we can only build from it,” LoVett said.
St. John’s effort had a long of strong points. The team shot 52 percent in the first half, made 40 percent (12-for-30) of three-pointers for the game and finished with 17 assists on 25 baskets. It had blemishes as well, like getting outrebounded 42-27 and allowing the Privateers 15 offensive rebounds.
“They handled us pretty good on the boards, so that is a concern,” Mullin said.
“It felt great to finally get out there and face competition and play when it matters,” Clark said. “I’m happy we got that first one out of the way. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s out of the way.”
The Storm was locked in a close game before closing the half with a 14-7 run for a 37-28 lead at the break.
“First 10 minutes of the first half we had a little jitters, but we knocked that out and the last 10 minutes we closed out,” Clark said. “We have to put a full 40-minute game together. Once we do that, I think we’ll be tournament-ready.”
In terms of indicators to come out of this one, St. John’s is going to put more emphasis on the three-point shot this season. It averaged 8.4 last season and in this game 30 of 56 shots were from beyond the arc. Mullin said it’s a trend in the game and “hey, we have some pretty good shooters.”
And the Storm is going to rely on a very small rotation. Ponds, LoVett, Simon and Clark all played 29 minutes or more. Tariq Owens and Ahmed were in for 23 and 21, respectively.
“We’ve only got nine guys. Everyone is going to have their shot,” Clark said. “Guys are going to have nights when there’s foul trouble . . . And other guys will have to pick it up.”
“We’re physically and mentally strong,” LoVett said. “Anyone who needs to play the extra minutes, we have people able to do it.”