St. John’s found its way to get to 2-0 in the Chris Mullin era, blistering by UMBC in the second half to cruise to a 75-53 win at Carnesecca Arena on Monday night.
Freshman point guard Federico Mussini led the game with 18 points, six assists and was a perfect eight for eight from the free throw line to send St. John’s undefeated into their matchup Thursday with Rutgers. While the Red Storm never trailed, they did provide plenty of warts early, but showed that they are already growing under the first year head coach.
Here are three thoughts for St. John’s fans after the second win of the 2015-16 season.
Defense first for the Johnnies – It was not the offense that St. John’s wanted to see early, struggling with turnovers and having a very slow start. But for Mullin’s group, they know they will have to rely on their defense, which the first year coach said he emphasized.
“We’ve spent a lot of time from day one on our team defense and that’s really what’s holding us together,” Mullin said.
The Red Storm’s defense protected the rim with 11 blocks and forced the Retrievers to shoot 26.3% on two-point field goals. That defensive output on most nights will lead to victories and through two games the defense has allowed just 55 points per game.
“We always know that we’re going to focus on defense first and the offense is going to come last,” grad transfer Ron Mvouika said. “We’re really focused one play at a time, like coach Mullin says, brick by brick. We’re bringing one brick at a time and I think we laid a good brick today.”
Freshman Yankuba Sima showed signs of being a solid interior presence, grabbing nine rebounds, scoring eight points and blocking four shots.
“I think he’s got a very natural feel of the game, both offensively and defensively,” Mullin said. “He’s got a composure about him, very calm and very effective, I’ll tell you what he’d be a guy I’d love to play with.”
Young veterans take step forward – Plenty will be put on the shoulders of veterans like grad transfer Durand Johnson and Ron Mvouika, but they aren’t exactly full of experience either. Johnson averaged 8.8 ppg the last time he played with Pitt, but missed last season with an ACL tear. Mvouika hurt his back last season after playing just two games and before that was a role player for Missouri State. For St. John’s to be successful, both will have to step into veteran roles and both showed signs of that in the second half.
After UMBC went on an 8-2 run to close the lead to two, Johnson – who was held scoreless after the first 20 minutes – began to take over. He drove the lane and hit a short jumper and then it all started to pick up from there.
“I definitely felt good after seeing the ball go in,” Johnson said of making his first shot of the 2nd half. “It boosted my confidence a lot, to just be comfortable out there and just play my game.”
After that Johnson followed it up with a step back jumper from the right elbow, then drilled a jumper along the left baseline. All of that in consecutive possessions put Johnson in a groove that led to a 15 point night, while Mvouika provided 10 of his 16 points in the second half. His night was capped by a three-pointer from the left corner that put the Red Storm up 12, allowing the double-digit lead to be sustained through the rest of the half.
“D.J. and Ron were big time tonight,” Mullin said. “They played like the leaders that we need them to be and I’m happy for them. They came here for their last year and so I’m happy of them and we need them.”
“We don’t have a deep bench right now, so we need contributions from everybody, but to have them come out and D.J. struggled in the first half, that just shows you his experience. He’s a big time player and he came through.”
Offense: Coming Soon – Even in this game, Mullin emphasized that their offense will come eventually. For the start of the game it appeared it might not show up at all, when they scored just two points on their first seven possessions. Through the tail end of the first half, St. John’s kept UMBC within reach thanks to 10 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
“I told them the offense will come, we’ll find that along the way and we got some good sets,” Mullin said.
In the second half, the Red Storm began to find their offense, but there will be growing pains. Even as Federico Mussini showed, when at times he bristles by a defender with a nifty move or no look pass, there are other times when he runs into Darien Williams at the top of the key and briefly loses the ball. Some of the freshman point guard’s passes were off, but they will improve given time and experience, something Mullin emphasized they will have to build.
“We can’t rush experience,” Mullin said. “We have to go through that probably, we can’t put 30 games on someone, we have to through them and we have to go through it together. We’re going to be better for it.”
Even when the offense was not scoring, it was hardly stagnant. It was illegal screens, a bad pass to front the post and a few simple shuffles of the feet the wrong way at times.
“We have unselfish guys, the ball will move, but sometimes we have a problem even getting open,” Mullin said. “We don’t set the right screen, that’s at timing issue, that’s a something that we work on each and every day… The 15 assists I like, they got 15 more shots than us and that’s the turnovers, so we have to clean that up, but again I think the assists are going up. We have to get the turnovers down and we got to get these guys off the offensive rebounds.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.