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Bulls Recon: The East Coast Bias talks St. Johns Hoops

Pico over at The East Coast Bias was kind enough to answer a few questions about our upcoming matchup with the St. Johns Red Storm. He runs a great site over there, and quite possibly has the best name in all of blogging. Yes, even better than Orson Swindle.

1. Growing up, St. Johns was always a Top 25 team consisting of mainly New York City kids. What caused the program to fall from grace?

The Red Storm team is still filled with New York City players. The location of the talent base isn’t the problem; though having the better NYC area players from the last few years would help. I will say that there are some players in that group I’d like to not have on my team for purposes of not having knuckleheads… but let’s take a look at some of the area players that the Red Storm definitely recruited (there are some I am unsure about, but these are guys known to have had scholarship offers in hand): Lance Stephenson. Sylven Landesberg. Doug Wiggins. Curtis Kelly. Sean Kilpatrick. Jordan Williams. Kemba Walker. Kevin Jones. Mookie Jones. Dane Miller. Truck Bryant. Corey Fisher. Antonio Pena. TyShawn Taylor. Greg Echinique. James Padgett. Jarrid Famous. Kevin Parrom.

Something that stands out to me in that list is that besides Landesberg, Kemba Walker, and Stephenson, and perhaps Kevin Jones, there aren’t a lot of strong impact players there. But many of them could be playing more if they were wearing the red and white of St. John’s. St. John’s has definitely brought in some NY region talent – Burrell, Hardy, Coker, Stith, Boothe, Omari Lawrence. Would they be better off with some of the players above – the better scorers, the more dynamic point guards? Possibly. But the issues with the program aren’t the NY kids, even though keeping K. Jones/ Landesberg/ Truck Bryant (who openly said he wanted to play at St. John’s) home. In fact, some of those players would look like busts playing in the Red Storm system.

Right now, the problem is bad offensive coaching – a haphazard system that is entirely dependent on players making plays; but the players aren’t strong individual playmakers. And they lose concentration at times. It’s a serious flaw, and the team simply has a problem playing crisp offense. The school fell from the heights of the Carnesecca era – regular NCAA appearances, though not with deep runs into the tourney – when Carnesecca left the sidelines. It’s been a comedy of errors, bizarre actions, and fearful morals for years, and the administration seems to keep hiring coaches who can’t stay for the long haul.

2. Can you give our readers a quick breakdown of what you guys like to do on offense and defense?

After last night’s game, I would like to say "suck" on offense, but that’s not an illuminating answer.

On offense, St. John’s runs a motion-offense system. At its best, players are moving around and looking for opportunities to drive to the hoop. It’s hard to speak about because sometimes, the fans don’t know what they’re trying to do; players often end up stagnant and unaggressive, and recently the team’s depended on DJ Kennedy’s drives or shooting and Justin Burrell’s post moves. Burrell also has ability to shoot out to the three point line. Kennedy can shoot off the dribble and is crafty in the lane. Mason is finding his game and is far more effective in the post than anywhere else, so far (more on that later). Paris Horne shoots 3-pointers from the corner and can drive (and dunk); Dwight Hardy shoots from the top of the key to a little past the lane (if extended).

The point guards don’t shoot. And when they do, the fans pray. The other forwards, Evans and Brownlee, can drive, but think their perimeter games are better than we have seen those games to be. Both get their shots blocked routinely by bigger big men, so tel Famous to get his swat hand ready.

Additionally, St. John’s plays poor offense against a zone. Any kind of zone. They deal better with the press these days, but the team’s shooting is erratic (and that’s the nicest way I can put it). To be frank, the offense is just putrid. Capable defense that restricts transition and makes the team shoot jump shots of any kind should be enough to stop this team. They’re dependent on athleticism, but aren’t more athletic than the rest of the league.

On defense, St. John’s tends to run straight man-to-man. Against some teams they would have a big man come out to slow a ballhandler and create some chaos, but they seem to do that less these days. But they will double a ballhandler for a moment to deter their progress or a curl into the lane. They will play some ¾ court token press. Paris Horne and DJ Kennedy are the better defenders, and Dominique Jones will see a lot of them. Other teams tend to take a lot of shots off the dribble – not off the catch/ assist – so creative players should do decently (like Da’Sean Butler, and the hot Mike Rosario). I hear Dominique Jones is creative…

Sean Evans is probably the best rebounder of the forwards, though DJ Kennedy averages more per game. As a team, they’re stronger on the defensive glass than the offensive. Both Justins and Dele Coker can block shots. Over all, they don’t allow a lot of points. Partly that’s because of the slow pace, but it’s also a result of defense.

3. There are rumors that Norm Roberts will be fired at the end of the year. Do you think he will be back next season?

I honestly don’t know. He shouldn’t be back. 6 years while coaching a defense that can’t score enough (the points margin or efficiency margin, whichever you use, is in the opponents’ favor in Big East play), finishing no higher than 11th in conference in the 5+ years, an inability to keep the top NYC players at home, along with declining attendance would seem enough to can a coach. They might be holding the cards close to the vest, but where some sports outlet usually catches a hint of a guy being seriously in danger of losing their job, there seems to be no hint.

There is message board rumor that the school is preparing to let him go; and the AD hasn’t come out with a vote of confidence as he did in previous years.

But there is also message board rumor that the school’s going to let him coach his seniors. I don’t know what to think. I can make a logical argument for why he should have gotten a 6th year, even if I wouldn’t have made the same decision – if the school thinks he inherited such a terrible situation that it took 2 years to get the team on steady ground, ok, I can see giving him 4 years (to be crass and to reference Baylor, no one got murdered at St. John’s, so I think they’re full of crap). But doing a little research would let them know that there is no precedent for a team as consistently worse on offense than defense as St. John’s improving to a competitive level. At best, they could have had a lucky year (like 06-07) where they squeeze out some close wins, get blown out in some other games, and make the NIT.

But there is absolutely no upside here. 9 players graduate next spring. What’s going to come in to replace them? There’s no "well, we stunk because I was cleaning up after the old regime; we play hard, help make us better" argument. Kids know that 6 years of catching boot-to-arse doesn’t bode well for the future.

I don’t know if he will be back. The administration has one central decision maker, Rev. Harrington, and he likes Norm, who keeps the program scandal-free. That might be enough to bring him back for yet another season. Which seems like crazy talk to me. I have him on my hot seat blog post, but does the AD?

4. How has Anthony Mason Jr. done this season after coming back from a couple of injuries over the past year?

Not as well as we would have hoped. His shot’s not there yet, and it’s sad to see him come back and not be able to show people how good he can be. Some St. John’s fans saw him play with the freshmen in 07-08 and labeled him a ball hog. That was his job, to be the central scorer for a team that was trying to find its way. That was his role, and he’s not necessarily meant for it. He had good games – the game against the Bulls two years ago in Tampa was indicative of how his box scores didn’t show his influence on the game. He defended well in the Red Storm’s spurt ahead of the Bulls, as I remember it.

But the reinvention of Mase has involved him aggressively bringing the ball up, using his length on defense, and looking for chances to make hustle plays. The athleticism seems to be there, but he doesn’t trust his legs. And the shot… I wish the staff had improved his shooting motion to make it more consistent. He short arms shots in the lane and shooting the spot-up jumper.

5. As a closet uniform geek, what do you think of the new Nike uniforms?

They took a little to grow on me, but I like them. The tops look a little like tank tops, and the ornate shadow design is kind of… strange. But I like the armbands and the red and white piping.

Thanks again to Pico. If you haven't checked out his site by now, you should. Never a dull moment over there.