Shamorie Ponds and St. John's are positioned for continued upswing in third season under Chris Mullin, which begins November 10 against New Orleans. (Photo by St. John's University Athletics)
Year two under Chris Mullin saw St. John's complete a six-win improvement from his first season at the helm of his alma mater, as the Red Storm went from 8-24 to 14-19 after the infusion of freshmen Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett into the backcourt to enhance the rebuilding project that the all-time leading scorer on the corner of Union and Utopia began when he was hired to replace Steve Lavin in 2015.
Mullin's third season looks to have the same uptick that last year brought to the hardwood, as evidenced by an early look at St. John's non-conference schedule, released late Monday afternoon, a slate that comprises 13 games that cover both ends of the college basketball spectrum. The Johnnies will also play a yet-to-be-named opponent in an exhibition contest, as well as a closed scrimmage, as per Zach Braziller of the New York Post.
There are obvious highlights, such as the February 3 clash with possible preseason No. 1 in the nation Duke inside Madison Square Garden the day before Super Bowl LII, as well as the obligatory guarantee games against mid-majors the likes of New Orleans and Central Connecticut, the first two opponents on the Red Storm ledger. There are also several neutral-site contests, chief among them the Advocare Invitational in Orlando; the Thanksgiving weekend tournament that Big East rival Seton Hall participated in a year ago, and also including an underrated Mohegan Sun clash against Saint Joseph's, who should see a resurgence in a retooled Atlantic 10 this season.
With less than three months before the ball is tipped at Carnesecca Arena, here are some insights on the first half of the season for the Red Storm, with some matchups to watch as well as other items of interest along the way:
1) This year's non-conference schedule is more conducive to early winning.
With all due respect to the Advocare field, St. John's should; on paper, that is, be good enough to win two games, and hopefully earn a championship date with tournament favorite West Virginia on Sunday, November 26. Even with the trip to Orlando, this year's tuneup for Big East play pales in comparison to the first two non-conference ledgers that Mullin and his Red Storm teams played, schedules that included high-quality opponents in both the Maui Invitational and Battle 4 Atlantis tournaments. If all goes well, a 10-win performance in non-league play should be the expectation, with 9-4 the worst case scenario.
2) A Division II opponent? Don't go getting flashbacks just yet.
Some die-hard fans who want to see St. John's schedule marquee names to raise their RPI and computer rankings before conference play will be dismayed to see Division II Molloy College on the schedule for a November 20 meeting at Carnesecca, but the Lions' place in the season immediately following Nebraska's arrival (more on that later) is a perfect sandwich game in between one high-major and the three Advocare Invitational games that begin against Oregon State on November 23. The skeptics among the Johnnies' fan base need not fear for another St. Thomas Aquinas debacle, as this year's team is mounds more talented and battle-tested, unlike the patchwork group Mullin guided through a baptism by fire in his first season. Molloy will be the perfect opportunity for the Red Storm to work out whatever kinks still remain one week into the year, and also a good in-season exhibition; if such a thing exists, before stepping up to face higher competition.
3) Nebraska is an early test, but one the Red Storm should pass.
The Cornhuskers come to Carnesecca Arena for a November 16 Gavitt Games matchup, heading to Queens since Madison Square Garden is booked for the 2K Classic that night. Barring a cataclysmic meltdown, St. John's will almost certainly be 2-0 heading into this matchup, and they have the pieces to not only defeat Nebraska, but do so convincingly. Head coach Tim Miles could very well be on the hot seat in Lincoln after a 12-19 season, and returns three starters led by junior guard Glynn Watson Jr., the Huskers' top returning scorer from last season. Graduate transfer Duby Okeke, a 6-foot-8 warrior by way of Winthrop, will make a difference down low, but with only one player taller than 6-foot-8 and only two proven three-point shooters, Nebraska will have their work cut out for them against the Red Storm.
4) Sacred Heart might just be the most important game on the schedule.
Why, you might ask? Because of the sheer fact that it is a home game following the excursion to Florida and preceding the two neutral-site games on the West Coast against Grand Canyon and Arizona State. When Seton Hall competed in the Advocare last season, Kevin Willard smartly scheduled a home game against Columbia before the Pirates' next two contests in Hawaii, and was rewarded with a 95-71 victory that served as an early coming-out party for then-freshman Myles Powell. With two of the more pivotal games in non-conference play coming up immediately after the Pioneers come to Queens for the first time since 2007, the visit from Anthony Latina and Sacred Heart could prove to have the same impact as Columbia did for Seton Hall a year ago.
5) Two quality mid-majors before league play.
No hyperbole is needed to preview the December 17 contest against Iona in the Holiday Festival, the first between the Johnnies and Gaels since 1995. This should be an entertaining 40 minutes, matching the uptempo attack of Tim Cluess and the two-time reigning Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions against another like-minded opponent in St. John's that will attempt to get out in transition early and often, returning most of last year's Big East-leading unit in defensive turnover rate. The team that makes the fewest mistakes should emerge victorious in a game where both could reach the 80-point threshold. Three days later, Saint Joseph's takes on the Red Storm for the first time since the 2013 National Invitation Tournament encounter in Philadelphia, one that ended on Sir'Dominic Pointer's baseline jumper at the buzzer. Phil Martelli's Hawks will be refreshed and primed to make up for a lost season last year, with both Pierfrancesco Oliva and Shavar Newkirk both returning from injuries. Lamarr "Fresh" Kimble will once again anchor the St. Joe's offense, a perimeter-oriented attack, in his junior year, with the help of James Demery and Charlie Brown on the wings. The key for the Red Storm in this matchup will be how well they can pound the ball inside to the likes of Kassoum Yakwe, Tariq Owens and Bashir Ahmed, as they will have a noticeable size and athleticism advantage.