In the preseason poll of Big East coaches that was released Thursday, when the conference held its media day at Madison Square Garden, St. John’s was picked ninth of 10 teams. First-year coach Mike Anderson not only didn’t take it as an insult but was fine with the forecast.
“Everywhere I’ve been, we were picked at the bottom when I came in,” said Anderson, who hasn’t had a losing season in his 17 years at UAB, Missouri and most recently Arkansas. “We were picked somewhere at the bottom and somehow we didn’t end up at the bottom.”
The Big East is shaping up to be one of the nation’s toughest conferences this season with a slew of returning starters. And given St. John’s circumstances, it’s easy to see why it was placed ahead of only DePaul.
The Storm return only two starters — 6-5 Mustapha Heron and 6-6 LJ Figueroa, who are preseason all-conference second-team selections — from a 21-13 NCAA Tournament team, plus three sophomore reserves who averaged fewer than eight minutes a game. St. John’s has a new coach and coaching staff and is implementing a new system, Anderson’s version of the “40 minutes of hell” popularized by his mentor, Nolan Richardson.
“We should have been picked last,” Anderson said.
Seton Hall was picked to finish first (the Pirates received 77 points), just ahead of Villanova (76). The Pirates and defending conference champion Wildcats each got five first-place votes.
“We are where we should be,” said Heron, who averaged 14.6 points. “Honestly, I think that we just got to go out and prove the narrative wrong.”
For the Storm to do that, a lot of inexperienced and new players must help Heron and Figueroa, who averaged 14.4 points and 6.4 rebounds.
Former St. John’s coach Chris Mullin did not give much playing time to the three sophomore reserves — 6-9 Josh Roberts, 6-3 Greg Williams Jr. and 6-5 Marcellus Earlington — but all seem assured of having roles in a system in which eight to 10 players are needed to play pressure defense.
Three transfers are intriguing as well.
Ian Steere, a 6-9 forward, transferred to St. John’s last season after playing one game at North Carolina State; St. John’s is hoping for a waiver that will allow him to play during the fall semester. David Caraher, a 6-6 swingman, was the freshman of the year for Houston Baptist in the Southland Conference before transferring to the Storm and sitting out all of last season. Rasheem Dunn, a 6-2 point guard, transferred in from Cleveland State; he was sitting out a year there after leading St. Francis (Brooklyn) in scoring his first two college seasons.
Figueroa said Anderson’s priority has been conditioning and added that he’s in “the best shape of my life right now.” That should be key for the new style of play.
“His culture is competitive,” Heron said of Anderson. “It’s not really much of a drop-off in St. John’s. St. John’s has always been a competitive [program] . . . The style is different than what St. John’s might be used to and different from what the Big East is used to from us [recently] . . . But I promise it will be fun.”