Mail: The long fall of St. John's; most underrated teams; more

Wednesday December 14th, 2016

Note: Seth Davis will periodically answer questions posed to him over Twitter, Facebook and emails sent through SI.com. Be sure to check out his Hoop Thoughts column every Monday and to send questions during his Twenty for Tuesday Q&A on Twitter at @SethDavisHoops. Trolls not included. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Yes, this is a festive time of year, but apparently they are not feeling so joyful in the Big Apple. To wit:

Will my beloved St. John’s ever recover? — Sad Jarvis (@SadJarvis)

Will St. John’s ever be relevant again? — Mike Achilarre (@Achilarre)

Both of these sad fans use the word “ever.” Well, “ever” is a long time, but I think it’s fair to say that there is nothing to indicate this once-proud program is on the verge of a resurgence under second-year coach Chris Mullin. The Red Storm, which claimed just one Big East win last season, are now 5–6 with losses to Delaware State (at home, no less) and by one point at LIU Brooklyn last Sunday. The Johnnies host Penn State on Sunday and then on Wednesday play at Syracuse, which lost to the Red Storm in Madison Square Garden this time last year. Then Big East play begins, and we all know how strong that league is this season.

It may feel like St. John’s hasn’t been relevant since Mullin played there back in the early 1980s, but the Johnnies did make the NCAA tournament twice in the last five years. There was also that run to the Elite Eight in 1999 under Mike Jarvis. But that, of course, is a far cry from Mullin’s heyday. Obviously the program can and should be in much better shape than it is now, but the fact is, times have changed drastically since the school’s last Final Four appearance in 1985. Those days, I’m afraid, are long gone. Mullin may have walked through that door, but the younger version of himself is playing somewhere else.

What happened? Progress, change, time, evolution—all those things. When Lou Carnesecca roamed the sidelines, the college basketball world was much smaller. There were not that many programs that had access to great arenas like Madison Square Garden and regular national television exposure. Carnesecca had one of the greatest pipelines in the history of the sport from the Riverside Church basketball program, which was run by his good friend Ernie Lorch, straight to Queens. Best of all, because St. John’s did not have any on-campus dorms, Carnesecca was able to provide his players with a stipend to cover their cost of living expenses. Since St. John’s is located in a high-end neighborhood, that was a handsome sum. Players could live at home, commute to school, and pocket the cash. It was all legal.

As the sport expanded, more and more programs could offer players exposure and opportunities to compete. The Riverside Church program petered out, a demise that was accelerated when Lorch was forced to resign in 2002 following allegations of sexual abuse made by one of his former players. St. John’s, which still plays its on-campus games in Carnesecca Arena and many of its bigger games in Madison Square Garden, has been lapped several times over when it comes to facilities. The school built on-campus dorms, which brought the stipend racket to a halt. And most damaging of all, the national prep scene exploded, robbing New York City of its best young players. People can talk all they want about the need for St. John’s to recruit the best players from New York, but that is hard to do when the best players from New York are actually playing high school ball in Las Vegas, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia and California. Those youngsters have come of age during an era when St. John’s has not been all that relevant. So it’s a vicious cycle.

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Mullin is only in his second year, so it is not fair to blame him for the team’s struggles. He has one of the youngest rosters in the entire country; St. John’s is ranked 348th in experience on kenpom.com. Mullin did well to recruit a very good young player from Brooklyn in Shamorie Ponds, a 6' 1" combo guard who was voted the Big East’s preseason freshman of the year. Another Brooklyn native, 6' 7" junior forward Bashir Ahmed, transferred in from junior college. The leading scorer is Marcus LoVett, a redshirt freshman from Fort Wayne, Indiana. (He has also missed the last three games due to an ankle injury.) There is some international flavor featuring players from Italy, Mali and Germany. There was also a native of Spain, Yankuba Sima, but he just announced he is transferring.

I saw this team in person for three straight days at the Battle 4 Atlantis. These guys have some talent. The problem is they have no idea how to play winning basketball right now. St. John’s played three good teams that week—Michigan State, VCU and Old Dominion. In each case, they hung tough for a half, maybe 30 minutes. But when winning time arrived, the Johnnies were mentally worn out and overmatched. I expect that pattern will repeat itself during Big East season.

If there is one over-arching thought I have regarding this program’s situation, it is the need for Mullin to do a much better job exploiting the transfer market. This is far more important than recruiting high school players, because if you can have a steady diet of transfers in your program, it means you will never be really young. There are plenty of good mid-major players looking to move up each spring. I think it is in Mullin’s best interest to identify good players, bring them into his program, teach them and toughen them up while they sit for a year, and then let them build a winning culture.

The thing is, that takes a while. From my conversations with Mullin, I believe he is dedicated towards turning this thing around, but there are plenty of people out there who are wondering if he really is going to stick it out. And you can bet that’s what his recruits are hearing from rival coaches. The only thing we know for sure is that this program became elite by operating a certain way, but that was a long time ago. For St. John’s to become elite again, it has to adapt to the current environment, not try to live off the good ole days.

Sorry to be such a downer! I mean, it’s holiday time, right? Let’s celebrate with some happier questions.

Icon Sportswire/Getty

Who is the most underrated team in the country? — Josh Nelson (@SSS_joshnelson)

This is more like it. Who has reason to hope during this most wonderful time of the year? Let’s go outside the top 25. Here’s my starting five:

1. Florida (7–3). All three of the Gators’ losses came against quality opponents (Duke and Gonzaga on neutral courts, on the road at Florida State), and they also have two quality neutral-court wins over Seton Hall and Miami. Even their win over Florida Gulf Coast by 21 points in Jacksonville looks stronger in the rearview mirror. Florida still has trouble scoring sometimes, but this is an experienced and first-rate defensive team with a bona fide rim protector in John Egbunu ready to erase everyone’s mistakes.

2. Wichita State (9–2). The Shockers, who almost came back to beat Michigan State on a neutral court on Nov. 25, just notched an impressive win over Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. They don’t have any great offensive players, but they do have a deep bench with lots of interchangeable parts. They are also ranked fourth in the country in defensive efficiency. That’s evidence of a winning culture.

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3. Texas A&M (7–2). The Aggies lost by a bucket at home to still-undefeated USC and played UCLA tough before losing by seven in Anaheim. That loss looks even better now than it did then. They have one of the best young frontcourt tandems in the country in 6' 10" sophomore Tyler Davis and 6' 9" freshman Robert Williams. That makes them un-zoneable.

4. Seton Hall (8–2). The Hall turned some heads by beating South Carolina in Madison Square Garden on Monday night (although the Gamecocks were playing without leading scorer Sindarius Thornwell). It also won a true road game at Iowa, which Iowa State couldn’t do. I love the three-man upperclass nucleus in 6' 4" Khadeen Carrington (he can really shoot), 6' 6" Desi Rodriguez and 6' 1"” Angel Delgado, juniors all. And 6' 2" freshman guard Myles Powell has been one of the real pleasant surprises of the season.

5. Middle Tennessee (9–1). I’m gonna keep riding the Blue Raiders’ bandwagon until someone physically removes me. They return the nucleus from the squad that upset Michigan State in the tournament, and they added Jacorey Williams, a 6' 8" transfer from Arkansas who is the team’s leading scorer. This is a big week for the Blue Raiders—they play at Belmont and at VCU. Two wins, and they’ll get the chirpers chirping again.

Will college hoops ever go away from one-and-dones? — Chad Vetter (@VetterChad)

I address this question partially as a reminder that the so-called one-and-done system is not a college basketball rule, but rather the result of a compromise between the NBA and its players association. This stemmed from an earlier collective bargaining negotiation in which David Stern really wanted to move the minimum age to 20. The NBAPA didn’t want any minimum. The issue was such a low priority for both entities that it was tabled until the very end of the negotiations. When it came up again, they spent about 12 seconds discussing it, agreed to meet each other halfway and called it a deal.

Now we are getting close to another CBA between the league and the NBAPA, and all indications are that the age minimum for the draft will remain at 19. I know a lot of college coaches would like to see a rule in place that would allow high school players to enter the draft but require those who choose to go to college to stay for two years. I don’t see that ever happening.

Frankly, I have never understood why we waste so much time and energy discussing this issue, much less decrying the rule. Let us not forget that before there was one-and-done, the rule was NONE-and-done. The compromise between the NBA and NBAPA forced the best high school players in America to spend a year in college, where they are routinely the best players and biggest stars. So this rule has been a tremendous boon for college hoops. There can be no debate about that. My preference would be for players to be able to go to the pros straight out of high school, because I believe that is the fairest system for them. But overall, I say it is good news that things are not going to change for a long time.

Mitchell Layton/Getty

When does Marquise Moore (George Mason) start getting the national recognition he deserves? — Petey Buckets (@peteybuckets)

When I start writing about him!

I’ve been doing this with each Twitterbag this season, so I will again thank one of my followers for pointing me in the right direction so I can help unearth a hidden gem. This one was fun because I really love late bloomers. Moore is a 6’ 2" senior guard who has taken a major step this season, increasing his scoring to 17.9 ppg (from 11.4 as a junior), 10.6 rebounds (from 6.1), 3.6 assists (from 3.1) and making 51.7% from the floor (from 39.8)%. Moore has only regressed in two areas: three-point shooting and turnovers. On threes, he was 1 for 16 last season and is 0 for 5 this year. And his turnover average is up from 2.1 as a junior to 2.6 this year.

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Thanks to the magic of Synergy, I checked out some video of Moore in action. Here’s my scouting report:

I like that he knows who he is . . . For a guy who can’t make threes, he does a great job driving . . . Maybe worst shooting form I’ve seen in a while. Pushes it off his chin. Weird, snap-back follow-through. Shot is completely broken . . . Yet pretty good in the mid-range. Makes long twos. The analytics guys would hate him . . . Has wide, strong shoulders and knows how to use them to finish in traffic . . . Terrific at feeding the post, and not just from the usual spots . . . Tries to force the issue sometimes, which explains the poor assist-to-turnover ratio for a PG . . . Terrific rebounder for his size. Does it with size and leverage, but mostly pursuit. Like I said: He knows who he is.

Who are your top five players by position at this point in the season? — Steve Abrams (@5titlesgoduke)

Lists, lists, I love lists! Note the nomenclature on positions, fit for the 21st century:

Point guard: Frank Mason, Kansas. Hard to go against Iowa State’s Monte Morris here, but Mason has done everything for the Jayhawks, and he is unequaled in terms of toughness and leadership.

Shooting guard: Luke Kennard, Duke. Dude can really shoot, and he’s playing with enormous confidence.

Third guard: Josh Hart, Villanova. The most versatile and valuable player in the country.

Stretch four: Justin Jackson, North Carolina. Dramatically improved shooter and playmaker.

Power forward: Caleb Swanigan, Purdue. Putting up killer numbers inside and out (15.9 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 61.5% from three).

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