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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing St. John’s with Rumble in the Garden

They are still celebrating the Duke win. Party on, Johnnies.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at St. John Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

To preview tonight’s affair between the Villanova Wildcats and St. John’s, old friend Norman Rose and I chatted about St. John’s, Chris Mullin, and all things Red Storm. You can also check out the reverse side of this short Q&A over at Rumble at the Garden.

Thanks to Norm, and here’s hoping the Johnnies take a break from the uptrend for a night, and then go on to finish their season on a high note.

CL: Congrats on the Duke scalping! Shamorie Ponds is all kinds of awesome. This isn’t even a question but just go ahead and brag for a minute.

NR: Duuuuuude. I still can’t believe that happened. It was honestly more of a relief, because watching this team find so many impressive ways to lose winnable games was unbelievable. And they are better than this, but they are also five guys deep, essentially. And how they did it was, in ways, a revelation. Yes, they played a little over their heads on offense - meaning Shamorie’s threes actually went in and Bashir Ahmed was a steady offensive force. But mostly, they executed and had a really good game plan, fought back from being down ten, held off the Blue Devils...

It was beautiful and tough and inspiring. And such a relief.

CL: What’s the deal with Marcus LoVett saying he might not be back next year?

NR: He’s 21, thought about going pro last year (Europe. No one is saying he’s got a legit NBA shot, but it’d be nice if he got into a training camp!), and has transferred a lot in search of a higher profile. We were assuming he wasn’t going to be back next year even before the injury. Now, with some disconnect between him/ his family and the coaching staff, it’s not likely that he will come back. Then again, he was at the game against Duke and celebrating!

I think he could use a few more games to prove to scouts that he can be a playmaker in a system, but he’s got to do for himself.

CL: Is there a larger concern with Chris Mullin’s ability to keep any sort of roster continuity? Bringing in talent hasn’t been an issue...but keeping it...

NR: I’d take issue with that a little. Everyone stayed after year one except Christian Jones, a holdover from Lavin’s time (he would have been useful). After year two Federico Mussini and Malik Ellison left, but both would have seen less playing time this season. Mussini had professional options. Darien Williams transferred to Nevada -- he played fairly rarely -- and has been booted from the Wolfpack program. Richard Freudenberg left for a pro opportunity as well in Germany.

One view of the departures is that Mullin is letting players go who won’t be huge contributors, working to get higher-level players in. Three players are sitting out this season and one (Sid Wilson) committed, signed, attended classes and then decided he wanted to transfer to UConn (and seemingly thought he could get a waiver to play this year. Yeah, ok). So the four players who left next year were essentially traded for four other players, three of whom should make an impact in the future for St. John’s, but leaving this season’s roster thin and vulnerable.

CL: Is Chris Mullin really as bad of a in-game coach as he appears? What can he do to fix that?

NR: I’ll start by saying that I fully believe that coaches should be more concerned with the pre-game planning of the team, and in-game adjustments are somewhat overrated, except for halftime adjustments.

I think Mullin and his staff have had some solid adjustments at halves over the course of the last year and a half. Some have been less good. Some of the execution out of time outs has been really poor. Some of the communication late in the game (like whether to foul while up three) has been abysmal.

Mullin shows that he has not been a sideline coach at times -- some of the time out meetings will take too long, or players will freelance, or they don’t make great on-the-fly adjustments during opponents’ runs. BUT, the issue in the coaching might also be that the players do have some freedom to freelance on shot choices, since Mullin emphasizes being comfortable and reactive versus listening for instruction from the sideline. There’s an assumption of basketball IQ over the two and a half years, at times, that seems... generous.

And the team’s bigger faults are the little execution issues that happen with fatigue - running at a shooter too fast when it doesn’t matter and you won’t block his shot anyway (thinking of the loss to Georgetown in overtime).

So yes, Mullin can become a better in-game coach. I think it’s more important that his team be better prepared and execute better, which is also on him and his staff.

CL: For the record, are you #TeamUConn in the Big East expansion debate or are you a weirdo?

NR: Pure wierdo. UConn can wither on a vine.

CL: Will St. John’s build on the Duke win and get a win in the Big East?

NR: Yes. They have been so close, and hopefully this experience reminds them to take no teams for granted (see: home vs. Providence. That effort barked and howled and chewed. Or home vs. DePaul) They should have won at Creighton. One of the Xavier games, as well.

Real talk, though, the depth, the effort, the defense and the shooting so far would have gotten them to about Marquette’s record. Which would be 15-9 overall, which would have been respectable, but still a touch under expectations.

CL: Give us a prediction for Wednesday night’s game.

NR: A real let down for the Johnnies. 81-69, Villanova.