You could see it in the rushed shots. The heavy volume of 3-point attempts. The desperate hunting for steals that led to easy layups.
St. John’s pressed Saturday night. It’s youth was apparent. In a must-win game, it could feel the pressure. Once it got down in the second half, the hole was dug deeper — too deep to rally from in a devastating 88-83 home loss to DePaul, the worst team in the Big East.
It was obvious this was new for this team. Being expected to win is different. After winning six straight games, the Johnnies have lost two of three, falling to Butler and DePaul. They have struggled as the hunted.
When your best player is a sophomore (Julian Champagnie), your most important player is a freshman (Posh Alexander), and one of your key reserves is also a freshman (Dylan Addae-Wusu), there will be learning lessons. This was one of them.
For a few weeks now I’ve said Alexander is St. John’s most valuable player. It has been abundantly clear in the two recent losses. When he’s not at his best, this team struggles. This season, when Alexander doesn’t score in double figures, St. John’s is 3-7, and it is 0-6 in league play. It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a freshman.
St. John’s didn’t bring the needed effort and intensity from the jump, and this team isn’t good enough to spot anyone 14 points. Coach Mike Anderson felt the Johnnies looked past DePaul after beating them by 13 on the road earlier this season. Champagnie said they didn’t play with a sense of urgency until it was too late.
You can fault the coaching staff or the players. It’s on everyone. It may end up costing this group a real shot at the NCAA Tournament.
Greg Williams Jr. played just 10 minutes in the loss and was a non-factor. He took a knee to the lower back early on and wasn’t the same, the lower-back injury that has hampered him for weeks now flaring up. A junior and a team captain, Williams has been sorely missed in the losses to Butler and DePaul. He’s one of the team’s best shooters, a quality defender and ball-mover.
While Williams was mostly absent during the team’s win streak, you had to expect regression from others. That’s where Williams would be so vital. With Rasheem Dunn struggling mightily on Saturday, shooting 1-for-10 and committing six turnovers, Anderson could’ve turned to Williams. The back prevented him from doing that.
I’m intrigued to see how this team responds to the worst loss of the Anderson era. The remaining schedule is difficult — a trip to No. 10 Villanova on Tuesday followed by home games against Providence and Seton Hall following an eight-day layoff. But remember, this group was left for dead at 1-5 in the league. It picked itself off the mat. The Johnnies are in an incredibly tough spot, having to go to Philadelphia and face the Wildcats, who will be out for revenge after their lopsided loss to St. John’s in Queens on Feb. 3. The Red Storm’s very best will be needed. Forget any Bracketology and NET talk. St. John’s has to find a way to win Tuesday or the only way it is going dancing is by winning the Big East Tournament.
The offseason mission for this coaching staff is simple: Find a quality big man. It is a gaping hole and has been for years, dating back to the previous coaching staff. George Washington graduate transfer Arnaldo Toro hasn’t been the answer. Josh Roberts has seen his playing time dwindle and hasn’t been nearly as effective of late. Isaih Moore has been a bright spot, but he would be better playing next to a true center.
DePaul crushed St. John’s inside, out-scoring them 58-18 in the paint. Butler had similar success. Providence’s Nate Watson had his way against the Johnnies in a recent game. St. John’s is last in the Big East in rebounding margin at -2.0 and next to last in defensive rebounding percentage at 69.3 percent. It has nobody who can score in the post. And while recruits Esahia Nyiwe and O’mar Stanley may help, neither is a proven commodity.