By Andy Mac Williams, 2/27/2019

Steve Lavin left the cupboard bare when he was fired as St Johns coach after the 2014-2015 season. Enter Chris Mullin-St Johns playing legend from the 1980's-NBA All Star and 1992 Olympic Dream Teamer. He'd never coached at any level. His first three seasons were a struggle(8-24, 14-19, 16-17 with no postseason bids and few BIG EAST wins). This season has been much better. The Johnnies went 12-0 out of the gate(now 20-8 overall) against a soft non-conference schedule(best wins over Rutgers and VCU). STJ lost their BE opener in New Jersey against Seton Hall 76-74 on a buzzer beating 3 pointer made possible by an officiating error. They responded with a blow-out win over Top 25 Marquette. This is an explosive volatile uber talented group. Mullin lets them run and create(78PPG). They gamble a ton on defense(12th in steals nationally). The Redstorm play fast and sometimes loose, but their starting 5 is off the charts good.

PG Shamorie Ponds(6-1 Junior) is a 3 year starter(20PPG-5 rebounds-5 assists-3 steals). He killed Seton Hall Saturday at MSG scoring 27 in a 78-70 St Johns win. Ponds is a deadly FT shooter. His 3 point % is up considerably. 6-5 Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron is #2 scorer(15.4 PPG-43% from 3). Heron has missed 2 of the last 5 games with a sore knee. In between sitting out he won BIG EAST Player of the Week. This guy was #2 scorer for the SEC Champs last season and gained immediate eligibility at St Johns because of his mother's illness.

6-5 Justin Simon(10PPG) is a strong defender and may mark Naji Marshall a bunch Thursday at Carnesseca Arfena in Queens(6:30 Tip-FS1). Simon is a transfer from Arizona. 6-7 Michigan State transfer Marvin Clarke is the Johnnies lone Senior(11PPG-6 rebounds). They gave him a Senior send off Saturday at MSG and probably will follow up with another ceremony at the on-campus arena Thursday.

The game is sold-out(5600). The 5th starter is Juco transfer L. J. Figueroa(Odessa JC in Texas). He is versatile and mega-talented(14PPG-6 rebounds-2 steals). All 5 regulars play 30 or more minutes/game. The bench is developing. Guard Brian Trimble returns. 6-9 Seedee Keita played for Final 4 South Carolina two seasons ago. Frosh Greg Williams is a terrific athlete.

St Johns wants to run and dunk and turn your live ball turnovers into fastbreak lay-ups and wide open spot up threes. They have spurtability. STJ does not like to be zoned. They do not shoot a high % from 3 in their half court offense. They are a 73% FT shooting team. but they don't get to the line much except for Ponds. Defense is primarily half court switch every ball screen man to man with some press thrown in. Rebounding is -5/game.

St Johns is especially tough to beat at band box Eastern Pit Carnesseca(11-1) with the lone loss to DePaul. The Johnnies are 2-2 at Madison Square Garden. They've been hot lately with 3 wins in the last 4(Butler in OT, Villanova at MSG and Seton Hall at MSG). St Johns is capable of great play(2 wins over Marquette and 1-1 vs Villanova), but they've also lost twice to Providence.


Confidence was high considering the current 4 game winning streak capped off by Sunday's 66-54 Cintas victory over Villanova. Now we find out Elias Harden has been suspended(coaches' decision). Harden had emerged recently as a valuable sub(winning basket at Seton Hall-8 points in 26 minutes vs Villanova). So be it! The Core 4 plus Hankins will start with Castlin and Welage off the bench and maybe we'll have a Dontarious James sighting?

X can win this by making the game half court with the score in the 60s or low 70s. Make St Johns guard inside against Tyriqie and Zach. Both Clarke and Simon are foul prone. Patient offense with low turnovers will frustrate STJ. They want to get defense over ASAP and run the other way. Complete 3 or 4 passes and you get a great shot against them.

X should be able to zone STJ a lot and rebound well out of the zone. X is limiting opponents to just 61PPG over the 4 game streak with a defensive efficiency of 0.92 points/possession. That key number would put Xavier inside the Top 15 in the NCAA on a full season basis.

STJ is 3rd in the BIG EAST at 8-7. X is tied for 4th with Seton Hall at 7-8 and SHU has a mid-week bye. A Xavier win at St Johns puts the Muskies into a 3rd place tie w/ the Johnnies. Not bad considering Xavier sat 10th and last at 3-8 less 3 weeks ago.

XU has a good chance to earn a Top 6 BIG EAST Tournament seed and avoid a Wednesday 3-13 play-in game at MSG. Beating St Johns on the road would be a huge step plus it's an NCAA NET Quadrant 1 win as is the Butler game next Tuesday in Indianapolis.

The absence of Elias Harden is unfortunate and unnerving, but not fatal by any means. The Muskies practiced with focus and enthusiasm Wednesday before departing for NYC. I've attended a lot of practices over my 30 plus years around XU hoops. Wednesday I saw something I'd never seen before. During a full speed full court transition defense drill after many reps, the players actually asked Travis to try it one more time. This was at the end of a hard 2 hour no BS no wasted energy workout. The last huddle was upbeat. Travis complimented the guys on their effort. "JUST US" echoed loudly in Cintas. BEAT ST JOHNS!!!!!!!!

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