Four minutes remained during last night’s Xavier-St. John’s game, and for the first time, the upset the Red Storm had threatened to engineer was ready to become reality. The Musketeers, ranked tenth-nationally, had teetered throughout the Big East tilt, a combination of sloppy ball-handling, interior malaise, and plain being outworked by the Johnnies. Up one, Chris Mullin’s squad looked poised for its second upset of the season.
But then Federico Mussini, SJU’s preternaturally calm freshman point guard who had converted four three-pointers during an 120-second span to pull the Red Storm within one, did something that only happens to first-year players — he slammed the game ball 20 feet into the air right in front of a referee.
As graduate transfer Ron Mvouika ran across the court to plead Mussini’s case, the guard was quickly given a technically. Xavier’s Myles Davis made two free throws, and Trevon Bluiett, who had been fouled by Mussini prior to his display of frustration, made another, and St. John’s was now down four, a margin that would stretch to eight in the 74-66 loss.
After the game, SJU coach Chris Mullin continued to stress patience. He believes the wins will come, a small consolation for a team that has now lost six straight: “I keep telling my guys we are gonna breakthrough. Keep competing. Keep practicing hard. Don’t let anything distract you from that.”
In spite of the outcome, though, this game could be a turning point for the Johnnies, who outplayed a team with Final Four aspirations for much of the game’s 40 minutes. Here are four takeaways from the near-win.
The offense is still stagnant, but at least the effort is there. St. John’s scored roughly 0.89 points per possessions versus Xavier, which isn’t great, but much better once one considers the Red Storm was hovering around 0.68 for much of the game. What has hamstrung the team during non-conference play and has continued in Big East action is the complete lack of offensive flow. Offensive hiccups are to be expected on a team without a veteran roster, but SJU has tried all the remedies and none have worked.
The team lacks the sort of scorer who can create for himself either off the bounce or through isolation (Durand Johnson, to be fair, has shown this skillset in inconsistent spurts). Yankuba Sima and Kassoum Yakwe don’t have a refined post game yet, which puts undue pressure on the backcourt to facilitate scoring — at this point during the duo’s development, they function best as board crashers who can score off loose balls and on the fast break.
Mussini remains a capable perimeter threat (33% from deep), but still seems uncomfortable, thrust into a role at point he didn’t expect when he first committed to the Red Storm (Marcus LoVett will miss 2016 as a partial qualifier).
With all of these issues, though, the hustle is real in Queens. This is clearly a rebuilding year, and the Red Storm are playing as if each game is a stepping stone to what should be a much better team in 2016-17. SJU completely outworked Xavier on the offensive glass — entering the game, Xavier ranked fourth nationally, per Ken Pomeroy, at limiting second chances (23% opponent offensive rebounding rate), but SJU grabbed nearly a third of its misses.
The team’s frantic energy was evident throughout the evening. The Red Storm seemed to have a step on Xavier during each possession, even if it meant stepping or tripping over its own feet every few sets.
Shot selection remains paramount to SJU’s improvement. The Red Storm attempted 29 three-point point field goals, making just seven, following a season-long trend of weak perimeter shooting (24%). Yet the team continues to take, and miss, a high rate of three-pointers. And even when the team does probe the margins of the mid-range, the shots are often with one foot on the three-point line, or highly contested.
Without that intuitive scorer who with little more than a crossover and a quick first step can get into the lane, St. John’s winds up taking a myriad of two-point jumpers: according to Hoop-Math.com, no other Big East team attempts a higher percentage of field goals within the arc than SJU (37%, of which the team makes a similar percentage).
Take, for example, Johnson, an explosive scorer whose first step and athleticism allows him nearly unfettered access whenever he chooses to drive his defender (i.e. his filthy one-handed dunk in transition during the second half). But too often, Johnson settled for an off-balance, deep threes against Xavier that jacked the team’s rhythm.
The future is indeed bright. Despite his frustrated ball spike, Mussini’s play is often measured. He takes stock of the defense, and then is able to often find the open teammate (what that Johnnie does with the ball is outside of Mussini’s control). He is also a streak shooter who can get hot quickly. Add Malik Ellison, a frosh wing who also has a measured and unhurried approach to his game, and the growth (slow as it may be) of Sima and Yakwe, and the Red Storm will be one of the more intriguing Big East teams next season.
And that doesn’t account for Shamorie Ponds, a silky left-handed shooter who has torched nets all over Mullin’s former playground haunts, and Bashir Ahmed, a former Iona commit turned junior college star — he scored 46 points last night.
Bashir Ahmed ties Darius Johnson-Odom's single-game scoring record with 46 points. He tied his career high with 16 rebounds.
— Blue Dragon Sports (@bluedragonsport) January 7, 2016
What’s next for Xavier? It will be interesting to see how the Musketeers pivot from this win. Bluiett and Davis didn’t begin to take over until late in the game, and the team’s frontcourt players — which have long been a strength for XU — were strangely tentative and whistle-friendly versus SJU. The Red Storm used a 1-2-1-1 to keep XU off balance when it started their offense, and the press seemed to completely surprise the Musketeers, who appear off-kilter without Edmond Sumner, who continues to miss time with a head injury suffered in late December.
Matt Giles is a freelance college basketball writer who has written for the New York Times, Deadspin, New York Magazine, the Washington Post, and Vice Sports. Follow him @HudsonGiles.