What St. John’s must do to become Top 25 team

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St. John’s has been here before. It finishes strong. There is reason for optimism. Momentum going into the offseason.

But, then, something goes awry. A key player leaves. The needed additions aren’t made. We saw it going into Chris Mullin’s final season. Tariq Owens, the team’s defensive stalwart, departed. That group still made the NCAA Tournament’s First Four, and did add Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa in the offseason, but I’ll always wonder what the Johnnies would have been capable of with a true rim protector like Owens who would help Texas Tech reach the national championship game.

St. John’s is in a similar spot now after coach Mike Anderson’s second season, coming off its first winning campaign in league play in six years. The potential for a huge season is here. The right moves and this is a top-25 caliber team.

Below are three keys for next year to be the kind of season this fan base has been waiting over two decades for:

Player Retention

St. John’s has to keep the core of Julian Champagnie, Greg Williams Jr., Posh Alexander, Marcellus Earlington and Dylan Addae-Wusu intact. I expect Champagnie to test the NBA draft waters and return. The coaching staff feels it is in a good spot with this group. Experience is so vital in college basketball now, particularly continuity, since there is so much turnover now every season. Champagnie could be the Big East Preseason Player of the Year next year. Alexander may be the league’s best point guard. I think Williams is a breakout candidate as a senior if his balky back can get — and stay — right.

There will always be departures. It’s the nature of the sport. Reserve forward Isaih Moore entered the transfer portal on Sunday. His close friend, wing Vince Cole, followed on Monday night. There may be more. The best programs keep their best players. That’s essential for St. John’s.

Add size

Losing the 6-foot-10 Moore is mitigated by the additions to the program. The coaching staff felt that 6-10 mid-year addition Esahia Nyiwe, if eligible, would have helped them defensively, a Moore shortcoming. He was able to practice from January on, gaining valuable familiarity with the system. Next year’s recruiting class includes two high-energy 6-8 forwards in Drissa Traore, of Long Island Lutheran, and O’Mar Stanley, who fit Anderson’s uptempo style.

St. John’s needs more, though. It has to find a back-to-the-basket big man capable of scoring in the post and being a factor on the glass. Stanley, Traore and Nyiwe have never played Division I basketball. It’s hard to project how productive they will be.

Just look at where St. John’s struggled in late-season losses to Seton Hall, DePaul and Butler: In the paint. It needs someone with experience, size and strength. A few interesting names have already hit the transfer portal: UMass All-Atlantic 10 first team forward Tre Mitchell and Louisville forward Aidan Igiehon, a former top-100 recruit who attended high school on Long Island. The last two years St. John’s added grad transfer big men Damien Sears and Arnaldo Toro. Neither provided nearly enough production. The staff needs to find a starting five.

Replace Dunn

All indications are Rasheem Dunn will not use the extra year of eligibility all players were given and come back. Dunn had shortcomings as a shooter and decision-maker, but he was valuable, particularly on the defensive end. St. John’s needs to find a replacement, and I don’t believe it would be fair to three-star recruit Andres Pinzon to expect him to take on such significant minutes right away. I would go the transfer route here again, but I would not look for a Dunn clone.

St. John's
Rasheem Dunn
Corey Sipkin

St. John’s needs more of a shooter to play next to the slashing Alexander. Northeastern transfer Tyson Walker, who attended Christ the King in Queens, is one of many early targets. I felt playing Dunn and Alexander together made St. John’s easy to guard in a half-court setting, since they were such similar players. Adding a guard who can space the floor would really help Alexander and free up driving lanes. Aside from Williams, St. John’s didn’t have another guard who even shot 30 percent from 3-point range. And now that Cole, one of the team’s better shooters is leaving, it heightens the need for another player who can be a threat from deep.

Parting thoughts

This was a strong season for St. John’s for many reasons. Champagnie and Alexander emerged as the faces of the program. The Johnnies didn’t have a single COVID-19 pause, a credit to everyone, from administrators to players on down.

This year, in my opinion, the goal was showing progress. Anderson and his staff needed that to happen for recruiting. It did. They went from 5-13 in the Big East to 10-9. St. John’s also showed it wasn’t quite ready for the big time. When it was time to prove it belonged in the tournament, in games against Butler, DePaul and Seton Hall, it came up short. Some of that was youth. Some of it was a roster that was a few pieces short.

Fans should be pleased with the season. They got to see development and improvement, a reason to look forward with anticipation instead of the typical dread. It sets St. John’s up for a huge year next season — granted of course that this offseason follows the program’s current trajectory.

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