Men’s Basketball Takes Big Step Forward in 2016-2017

Photo/Athletic Communications

Photo/Athletic Communications

Dylan Hornik, Co-Sports Editor

There’s a slogan popping up all over social media that has become a rallying cry, of sorts, for floundering athletic teams. Thanks to the newfound success of the young, yet infinitely talented, Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA, “Trust the Process” has firmly established itself in sports lexicon.

Well, “the process” made its way to St. John’s basketball last year, the first under Hall of Famer Chris Mullin. After essentially starting from scratch in 2015, most expected the Red Storm to lie dormant at the bottom of the Big East for at least three years, maybe more.

It is safe to say, now that the Red Storm have concluded their 2016-2017 season, that Mullin’s process is nearly complete. St. John’s basketball is relevant again, and may be on the verge of contention, even after an ugly loss to Villanova in the conference tournament.

“We definitely progressed, as you can see from last year, and that’s what we need; each and every year to get better,” freshman guard Shamorie Ponds said after the loss to Villanova. “That’s what we did this year. We did great. I’m proud of my teammates and we came a long way from the beginning of the season. I’m real happy with everybody.”

Expectations may have been at an all-time low after Mullin’s first season was nothing short of a disaster; they lost a school record of 16 consecutive games and were victorious in just one Big East matchup.

Then, almost all at once, Mullin and his staff received a massive influx of talent, especially in the backcourt. Marcus LoVett, finally eligible, went to work with Ponds, his partner-in-crime-to-be. Justin Simon and Marvin Clark Jr. decided to join the team as transfers, but couldn’t play this season.

When the student body returned to campus after summer break, the Red Storm looked nothing like they did in 2015. New players began to mesh with those that survived the previous season’s torture, and all of a sudden the Johnnies were an offensive force, scoring nearly 77 points per game in regular season play.

The team’s frontcourt depth took a hit early in the winter. Yankuba Sima transferred to Oklahoma State, and four-star commit Zach Brown was released from his letter of intent after a robbery arrest. It did let players like Darien Williams get more playing time, and freed up a pair of future scholarship offers, which could be more beneficial as the team nears true contention.

The season may have reached its apex in a 76-73 win over 13th-ranked Butler in front of a packed Carnesecca Arena, which speaks volumes of the troubles of both playing in the Big East conference and getting a young team to give everything they can possibly muster for all 33 games.

After that victory, the Red Storm sat at 7-7 with almost all of conference play ahead of them. They already weathered a five-game losing streak and beat New York rivals Syracuse and Fordham by a combined 61 points. Having a young, unproven team in one of the toughest conferences in America is never a good omen, but the Johnnies responded well to the pressure, finishing with seven times as many Big East wins as they did in 2015-2016.

There were troubles, though they were not nearly as worrisome as they were a year ago. Perimeter defense has taken a backseat to scoring, and they were streaky on offense. Another offseason of practice could quell these issues, though, and the maturation of the team’s biggest stars, like Ponds, LoVett and Owens, could put the team over the .500 mark for the first time under Mullin.

“I think defensively we need to improve,” Mullin said. “I do think a lot of that will come with strength and maturity. I think a lot of people, me included, players improve a lot in the offseason. That’s the best time to do it.”

2017-2018 could be the year of the Red Storm. That doesn’t mean that Shamorie Ponds will be cutting down the net after a national championship win, but they will definitely be prepared to chase an NCAA Tournament spot. While other Big East teams, like Villanova, will be turning their rosters over, the Red Storm will only be getting more comfortable with each other.