There is no question about the state of the St. John’s men’s basketball program; it’s under construction.
Since last season’s first round exit in the NCAA Tournament, everything about the program has a whole new look and feel to it. There’s a whole new staff of coaches led by first time head coach and St. John’s legend Chris Mullin, associate head coach Barry “Slice” Rohrssen, assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih, assistant coach Greg St. Jean, director of basketball operations Dan Matic and special assistant and NBA legend Mitch Richmond.
“When I was a [general manager], my biggest asset was the people who worked with me,” Mullin said at St. John’s Media Day. “Stepping into this role as a first time coach, coming from the NBA after 30 years, it was a whole new ballgame.”
With the knowledge that coaching was going to be something totally new and strange to him, Mullin put together a staff that has been through the gauntlet of the college coaching scene, a staff that has experience going into kids’ homes and convincing not only the athletes, but their parents, to devote four years to a school. Morever, a staff that has the ability to help St. John’s rise to a place it hasn’t seen since Mullin’s playing days, a national championship contender.
“They are all great guys,” freshman Kassoum Yakwe said of the coaching staff. “They all know a lot about basketball. They all treat me well and obviously I have the freedom to speak with them. They are really easy to get along with and talk to.”
But, those days of returning to national prominence are years down the road. This year’s roster is going to be one that is going to help the program move forward for sure, but it’s almost certainly going to be a rebuilding year.
The program doesn’t have the likes of D’Angelo Harrison, Sir’ Dominic Pointer, Phil Greene IV and Jamal Branch, who all graduated in May. The team lost Chris Obekpa and Rysheed Jordan. Both decided to jump ship and leave the program. Obekpa transferred to UNLV, and Jordan decided to go pro.
The roster is completely revamped with four transfers, six incoming freshman and only three returning players. The three returners combine to only bring back an average of four points and four rebounds per game. No matter where you are in the country, a roster with this much turnover is going to take time to develop and find its niche.
The Big East coaches definitely took all of that into account during the preseason voting as they picked St. John’s to finish dead last in the conference with 13 points, ten points behind the next closest team, which was Creighton with 23 points. But, the athletes don’t seem to care; they know that preseason polls don’t mean much when a single game has yet to be played.
“We brush that off, being picked last,” redshirt junior Christian Jones said. “We have something to prove because we are all new. We just have to show them that we are ready to play. Even without them saying that we have something to prove. But, it’s just extra fire to the flame.”
But, what will the Red Storm team that takes the court in 2015-16 look like? That is a question that many are wondering.
Two guys who will play crucial roles in the success of the team as starters are graduate students Ron Mvouika and Durand Johnson. Both bring something to the Red Storm roster that is needed: experience. They also both embrace the leadership roles that they will surely have this season.
“I’m also older than everybody,” Mvouika told the Associated Press. “They call me ‘Uncle Ronnie.’ I’m about to turn 24 and some of these guys are 18. That’s a big gap. I could use all the stuff I learned in the past against these younger guys.”
Mvouika is definitely the most travelled and experienced player the Red Storm will have on the floor this season. Mvouika was born in Paris, France and played his high school ball at the prestigious Huntington Prep (W.Va) before moving on to play at Sheridan College in Wyoming and than at Missouri State. With all of that basketball experience, Mvouika will surely be a leader both on and off the floor this season.
Johnson is a transfer from the University of Pittsburgh, and after suffering a brutal knee injury during the 2013-14 season, he was forced to sit out the remainder of that season and the 2014-15 season. The 6’6” forward surely is hungry to prove to everyone the type of player he can be in his last year of collegiate eligibility. Johnson’s scoring ability will be something that the team will lean on this season and will be a huge factor in the success of this year’s team.
“I just want to show the all-around player that I am,” Johnson said. “I missed out for two years and, by me being back right now, I’m ready to go all out and leave everything I have out on the court.”
The young guns on this team will also have to play a vital role in how good this team can be. Mullin says that he plans to have both international recruit and Italian native freshman Federico Mussini and four-star recruit and Chicago native, freshman Marcus LoVett running the point guard position.
“From what I’ve seen on the court from Federico [Mussini] and Marcus [LoVett] is that their experience is beyond their years,” Mullin said. “They’re composed and confident.”
Mussini chose to attend St. John’s after playing three seasons professionally for Pallancanestro Reggiana of Serie A in Italy. LoVett was a high school standout playing for Morgan Park High School in Chicago. He averaged 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists during his senior season. On Nov. 11 the NCAA ruled that LoVett would only have partial eligibility status. The ruling means that th freshman guard can not olay this season. Mussini will now now be forced to take the reigns of the point guard position.
In the frontcourt, the Red Storm will have two freshman options, Yankuba Sima and Kassoum Yakwe, that could see considerable playing time.
Sima is a 6’11” forward from Spain who has made a name for himself for his defensive prowess in the post. He helped lead the Spanish team to the quarterfinals at the 2015 FIBA Under-19 World Championships. The big man put up impressive numbers averaging 9.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.
Yakwe is the top recruit that Mullin and his staff brought in during the recruiting process. The four-star 6’7” forward is from Mali and played high school basketball at Our Savior New American School in Centereach, N.Y. He was named the 2015 Nike Elite Youth Basketball League Defensive Player of the Year. Yakwe could have a huge impact this season, but he also is yet to receive clearance for game action by the NCAA.
“I don’t put any pressure on myself,” Yakwe said of being the program’s top recruit. “I just came here to play the game of basketball, the game I love to play. Coach Mullin is a Hall of Famer and I know I will learn a lot from him.”
The three returning players are Jones, sophomore Amar Alibegovic and senior Felix Balamou. All three players’ roles are unknown. But, what is known is that all three bring the experience of making a run to the NCAA Tournament, something that is certainly invaluable to this roster.
“Being an older guy, I have embraced being a leader on this team,” Jones said. “I know what it takes in order to win. I’ve been to the tournament before. So helping lead is what I am going to do.”
It’s going to be a tough season for the Red Storm. They open up with a non-conference slate of games they should have a strong shot of coming out on top in. Games against Wagner, UMBC, Fordham, St. Francis Brooklyn, Incarnate Word, NJIT and Niagara are all games that the Red Storm will have a good chance of winning. Many of these games come early in the schedule before Big East play and should give the Johnnies a sense of confidence heading into conference play.
The Red Storm will head to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational on Nov. 23 and there they will be one of the weaker teams in the field competing against teams like Vanderbilt, Kansas, Indiana, Wake Forest, UNLV, UCLA, and Chaminade. This will be the Johnnies’ toughest test on the non-conference slate before Big East play begins on Dec. 31 versus Creighton.
The Red Storm will surely win some games in their conference, but with many young players not used to the physicality and the toughness of the Big East, the Red Storm will face their fair share of lumps. However, I feel that they will shock some people and win a game or two versus a team that maybe they shouldn’t beat, but will because they will be underestimated.
In my opinion, a realistic season for St. John’s is a 12-15 win campaign while surprising a few conference opponents along the way. The most important thing for the Red Storm as a team this season is to get better after each and every game. With Mullin and this experienced staff at the helm, the future can only be bright for St. John’s.
However, all of the speculation and preseason predictions will become moot at the start of the regular season. The Mullin era begins on Nov. 13 at Carnesecca Arena, when the Red Storm take on Wagner.