Monday, July 25, 2016

Ten Teams and the Conference, Three Questions Each, Part 4

The FIBA tournaments are winding down and their NCAA players have gained valuable experience. The last of the transfers and fifth year seniors are finding their spots. July foreign tours are wrapping up as teams taking their tours in August are getting ready to start practice. As summer moves on, a few questions come to mind about each Big East program going into the 2016-17 season...

St. John's
Rookie coach Chris Mullin found a very bare cupboard (returning 8% of the minutes, 5% of the possessions and 4% of the points scored from the 2014-15 squad) this time last off season, he has to feel good about heading into this season with 51% of the minutes and possessions, and 49% of the points scored from last season's squad. Even though the Red Storm posted a 1-17 in conference and 8-24 overall record, Mullin knows there is help in the form of more (in numbers and talent) players available to continue his roster overhaul and rebuilding program at St. John's.

1. What can the Red Storm fans expect in season 2? More wins for starters. Their single conference win matched the total from 2003-04, a tumultuous season that opened with player suspensions and a Mike Jarvis' melodramatic walk-out six games into the season, which left Kevin Clark and the remainder of Jarvis' staff to clean up the wreckage. Mullin's 0.250 overall winning percentage bettered only the 1918-19 squad which failed to win a game in seven tries. St. John's, ranked #300 on offensive by Ken Pomeroy, can expect help from the experience earned by the returning players and and five new faces, transfers and JUCOs, red shirts and true freshmen. Last season's front court rotation, Kassoum Yakwe, Yankuba Sima and Amar Alibegovic, will be helped by transfer Tariq Owens (Tennessee), who sat in 2015-16 and the return of red shirt (injury) Darien Williams. Mullin will fill out the back court rotation with red shirt freshman Marcus LoVett and true freshman Shamorie Ponds, who will compete with rising sophomore Federico Mussini for time at the point and shooting guard positions.

The Red Storm's out of conference slate which includes Nichols State, Longwood, Binghamton, LIU and Delaware State, is more an extended exhibition slate than bullet points on a post season resume. Post season considerations may come in 2017-18 (or later). Timely out of conference tests will come with trips to Minnesota (St. John's Gavitt Games opponent) and Tulane (fulfilling a home-away contract), both of which, given the state of their respective programs, are winnable for a well-prepared Red Storm squad.

2. How badly will St. John's rebuilding efforts be hurt by the loss of Barry ("Slice") Rohrssen? A friendship forged nearly four decades ago in Brooklyn was a major factor that lured Rohrssen away from John Calipari's Kentucky staff and back to the Big Apple. Rohrssen had the reputation, the pedigree and connections to pull down the Associate Head Coach job, but he could not carve out a defined role on Mullin's staff. Left with only deep bench players, the staff cast a wide net that eventually gathered a squad with gaps both in the talent level and skill set. Not every scholarship player was able to suit up to boot. The lack of completeness seemed to reflect on Slice. And as the season lurched to a conclusion Slice's status seemed to diminish. For the 2016-17 season the Johnnies did sign Ponds, but they swung and missed on two other high profile elite targets into whom Rohrssen invested time and effort.

By season's end Mullin turned the recruiting focus from highly-regarded high schoolers to junior college and transfer prospects. Mullin and staff found a wing -- Marvin Clark out of Michigan State -- and an additional guard, Justin Simmon out of Arizona. Two time NJCAA First Team Bashir Ahmed, a native of the Bronx who attended Hutchinson Community College before returning home was signed in December. Mullin picked up a second scorer, a forward out of Germany, Richard Freudenberg, who averaged 14.8 points per game for his club they ran to the U19 German League championship. Going forward, Mullin and the Red Storm staff will rebuild St. John's program and reputation with a mix of reachable high schoolers and transfers. Top 50 recruiting will wait until success draws positive attention. Nearly eight weeks after Clark and Simmons signed Zagoria and others reported that Rohrssen and St. John's were nearing terms on a buyout. St. John's -- the program and their head coach -- should weather this transition.

3. What is St. John's greatest need? Scoring, or more precisely, more efficient use of their offensive possessions. A look at Pomeroy's 2016 profile for the Red Storm shows a team that scored 0.97 points per possession, ranked #301 out of 351 Division 1 teams. Ouch. As for the why, Ken Pomeroy's 2016 profile suggests two serious problems. The Johnnies' field goal efficiency was 45.6%, ranked #321 out of 351 Division 1 schools. They shot badly when they had the ball. Their turnover rate was 20.9%, ranked #322 (out of 351). A thumbnail narrative might be "the Johnnies were able to finish less than 8 of every 10 possessions with a field goal attempt or free throw (ie scoring) attempt. And when they did finish with a shot, they converted less than 50% of them". Notably, the Johnnies had difficulty converting inside the three point line, shooting only 44.1%. Their FTA/FGA rate -- 38% a bit above average for Division 1 -- further suggests that while they got to the line when they drove inside they only shot 64% at the line, among the least efficient in Division 1.

Rumble in the Garden points out that the Johnnies were one of only two Big East teams that lost more games when their shooting was more efficient than their opponents than they won when their shooting was less efficient than their opponents. Shooting efficiency and turnovers are the more obvious problems, but defensive FTA/FGA percentage (43.3%, ranked #307 by Pomeroy) was the other problem. They have to foul less, especially at the end of close games. LoVett, Ponds and experience/maturity will help reduce the turnovers while Ahmed and Freudenberg should help with the scoring. Alibegovic, Sima and Yakwe will have to improve their offense around the basket to keep defenses honest.

Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu are playing in the NBA summer league, the Championship rings have arrived and the returning roster is prepping for their trip to Spain where, the staff has to hope, the squad will focus on the season coming up. The numbers, returning 72% of the minutes and points and 71% of the possessions are promising. However, how can one quantify the leadership and experience lost with the departure of Arcidiacono and Ochefu however? New faces include Donte DiVencinzo, a red shirt off guard, Omari Spellman a top 50 low post player with range and Dylan Painter, a traditional back-to-the-basket center much in the mold of Xavier's Matt Stainbrook and Villanova's John Pinone.

1. Can Arch be replaced? No, the intangibles are hard to duplicate, but Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth nearly match the tangibles and bring other assets to the point guard position. Brunson has an IQ and court vision equal to Arcidiacono's, which he can couple with a killer cross over move that he will learn to selectively apply to the appropriately scouted opponents. Brunson will have to master his tendency to over penetrate and learn to actively find and pass to the open shooter before the second (or third) defender closes off the passing lanes. Brunson will have to learn that even though you can hit the shot in front of you, passing to your teammate (who has an even better chance to convert) is essential to build the team. Booth will temper his tendency to over dribble and learn to look for and hit the open teammate, making his scoring instincts even more dangerous.

2. How will Wright manage a loaded roster? Villanova loses two senior starters (and most of his Bench Mob), but has to integrate an incoming class of five -- two true freshmen (Omari Spellman and Dylan Painter), two red shirt freshmen (Donte DiVincenzo and Tim Delaney) and a transfer (Eric Paschall) -- players with varying skill sets into a roster that features six returning veterans. The incoming group spans positions #2 through #5. If past is prelude, the new players will see the court when they commit to playing defense and when they are in game shape. Wright typically treats the first two months as an extended tryout and preparation for conference play, so expect to see the staff juggle the starting five and rotations early and often. Rarely going deeper than eight (or 8.5) come January, Wright will have to integrate two-three of the five newcomers with his six returning veterans. Everyone of the 11 players would probably start or be first off the bench for any of the other nine teams in the conference. Playing time last season ranged from a high of 32 minutes (Arcidiacono) down to 17 (#4/#5 Darryl Reynolds). Expect a similar distribution this season.

Ochefu, the established starter in the low post, rarely played more than 25 minutes last season and averaged 23.4 minutes per game. His backup, Reynolds has become a serviceable low post journeyman who averaged only six fewer minutes per game than Ochefu while providing nearly the same rebounding and scoring efficiency. Reynolds will close some of that six minutes gap next season as freshmen low post contingent (Painter, Delaney and Spellman) along with Paschall, learn the system. Paschall, a 6'7" 260 pound transfer exploded in his post grad year at Thomas More Prep and went on to garner the Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year award playing for Fordham in 2014-15, has three years of eligibility and may be closest to playing shape.

Of the freshmen, Spellman, a consensus top 25 recruit with established scoring skills, is expected to have a more immediate impact than Dylan Painter, a 6'9" 215 pound bfc out of Hershey, Pennsylvania. Expect Spellman to invest quite a bit of his summer getting into a playing shape more suitable for Wright's style of defense. With multiple scorers at virtually every other position, the Wildcats' low post needs tend more toward a mobile rim defender, strong defensive rebounder, someone who can effectively set picks and screens and move to the basket as the scoring option that will keep defenses honest. Irrespective of position, defense is the way to earn playing time in Wright's program.

Both Brunson (24.0 minutes per game) and Booth (21.9 minutes per game) will earn more minutes as the kind of tandem point guard pairing that Wright has used for the past eight seasons. Expect Josh Hart to slide down to the #2 (or even a ball handling #1) at times with only a very small increase in minutes (31.4 mpg in 2016) as Wright tries out longer lineups while giving either Brunson or Booth (or both) a breather. Mikal Bridges most likely will slide down to the #3 while DiVencinzo will cover the #2 and #3 when Bridges moves up to the #4 as he did at times last season.

3. Can the Wildcats expect success comparable to 2015-16 this season? Most analysts seem to think so. Luke Winn has the 'Cats ranked #3 in his too early poll over at SI as does Garry Parish over at Should everyone get to campus and begin fall practice health (and happy...), expect the Wildcats to be ranked in the top 2-5 in pre and early season polls. A very early road game at Purdue, along games with Virginia and Notre Dame, make running the table on their out of conference slate improbable. Scheduled for the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, the Irish should be a good test for fan draw, as many Villanova alums live in New Jersey and metro New York City. If the Charleston Classic field plays to seed, Wright will have to game plan a Ben Howland-coached squad in the championship game after working through a solid (but not great) set of tournament opponents. Winning the Big East regular season title three straight times, the Wildcats should repeat, though equaling their 16-2 regular season conference record may be a stretch as both Xavier and Creighton are expected to challenge -- and never over look a Seton Hall squad that has posted the best conference record versus Villanova since the conference reformed in 2013. Look for a more competitive conference in 2016-17 and do not be surprised if some combination of the Pirates, Blue Jays and Musketeers (and a revived Hoya program!?) prove to be very inhospitable hosts.

While the 2016 Wildcats had the look and feel of a team on a mission, common wisdom counters with "draw and match-ups matter". Of the six coaches Wright had to prep his Wildcats for, only UNC-Asheville's Nicholas McDevitt was an unknown. And of the five coaches Wright had faced before, he had a winning record versus three -- Fran McCaffrey, Siena/Iowa (2-0), Jim Larranaga George Mason/Miami (2-1) and Bill Self Kansas (2-1). While Lon Kruger's Oklahoma squad won an early season match-up by 23 points, the Villanova squad they faced three months later was a more mature and far better prepared. Roy Smith, whom Wright had played while Smith mentored the Kansas team in addition to North Carolina, was the only coach who appeared to have Wright's number (0-4). Villanova should take the regular season title again this year and with it the #1 seed in Madison Square Garden. The Hall seems to have their number in the tournament; look for where they will meet. As for Selection Sunday, look for the draw and the matchups. The program is learning to travel well, especially for the NCAA Tournament.

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