PISCATAWAY, N.J. — In trying to list the ways St. John’s is improved this season, you don’t have to look very far or count very high.
The point is, it was as clear as day on Friday night that newcomers Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa stand to make a world of difference for the Red Storm.
Heron, a transfer from Auburn, had 27 points and Figueroa, a junior college transfer from Odessa in Texas, had 23 points and 11 rebounds. Together, they were way too much for Rutgers in the Storm’s 84-65 win.
The win over a Big Ten team, albeit one that is expected to be low in the standings, was reassuring for Chris Mullin’s team.
“A huge step,” Heron said after his team was unfazed by a loud crowd of 7,100. “The first road test of the year, so it was a huge step in the right direction.”
Logic suggested that “huge” was going to describe the size disadvantage facing St. John’s (3-0) in this segment of the Big East vs. Big Ten Gavitt Games. Big man Sedee Keita had arthroscopic knee surgery this week and will be out for four to six weeks. “I’m kind of having a vision for what I want this group to look like,” Mullin said. “We worked on it only two days, this type of game plan. So for them to do this tonight I think will give them confidence.”
Having additions such as Heron and Figueroa would help anyone’s confidence. They made it irrelevant that star guard Shamorie Ponds had only eight points (Mullin nonetheless said Ponds and Justin Simon set a good early tempo).
Figueroa hit a key three-pointer late in the first half after Rutgers (2-1) made a mini-run to draw within two. Heron had a blistering second half with 20 points. All told, the two of them shot 17-for-27 from the floor, 10-for-14 on three-pointers.
Heron’s play is not a surprise, given that he was Auburn’s top scorer last season. Figueroa might turn out to be a revelation. “He plays hard every possession,” Heron said. “You see him out there, smacking the floor. He’s the most energetic person on the team, so he could fit in anywhere.”
The junior forward is from Massachusetts but played two years of high school ball in Florida before going to Texas. “Well, playing away from home my whole life, starting in high school, I wanted to come back home. My family gets to watch me play. That kind of keeps me motivated more,” Figueroa said.
It might take extra motivation from opponents to stop the Storm, at least in the view of Steve Pikiell, in his third year as Rutgers coach after having left Stony Brook. “If they shoot the ball like that, they’ll play for a long time,’’ he said. “Chris Mullin has done a really good job. I knew they were talented, we saw it firsthand. But if they shoot like that, they’re going to be tough to beat.”