On its own, Wednesday night’s loss was frustrating, maddening and disappointing. And those adjectives shouldn’t be what bothers St. John’s and its fans the most about the two-point loss at Indiana.
It’s that it was a missed opportunity. A blown chance. An early résumé-building win that eluded the Johnnies. Most concerning, it could haunt them due to a light non-conference schedule that features just two high-stakes games.
For a team with such high expectations, the plan should be to formulate the basis of a strong résumé entering the Big East season. Instead, barring an upset of third-ranked Kansas on Dec. 3 at brand-new UBS Arena, the Johnnies will have very little margin for error. It’s for that very reason I was critical of the non-conference schedule once it was released.
The rest of the schedule doesn’t include a top-100 team, according to the analytic-based KenPom.com rankings. It features just one team that made the NCAA Tournament a year ago, Colgate of the Patriot League, and a power-conference school in Pittsburgh that was picked to finish next-to-last in the ACC. The opener was against Mississippi Valley State, which was last in the NET rankings a year ago and isn’t expected to be much better this season. There are six opponents ranked 209th or lower by KenPom.
It doesn’t help this team that, after the loss at Indiana, it will return to facing the likes of FDU, St. Francis Brooklyn and NJIT the next three games. It won’t make the Red Storm better to follow up the showdown against Kansas by hosting Fordham and Monmouth.
I don’t think the non-conference schedule will end up costing St. John’s an NCAA Tournament berth. The Big East is off to a strong start, and that will offer more chances for quality wins. I do believe the schedule will ultimately hurt its tournament seed, though, and lower its ceiling. And it certainly won’t prepare them for Kansas or the conference schedule.
This is a new team with just three returning players, which factored into scheduling the way it did, athletic director Mike Cragg said in a phone interview. The new players have to learn the system and get comfortable with it. But beating up on cupcakes isn’t necessarily going to speed up the development of this group. Two of the transfers, big man Joel Soriano of Fordham and guard Tareq Coburn of Hofstra, struggled against Indiana, in part due to the speed and physicality of the Big Ten foe. They need more games like this to adjust, not blowouts against overwhelmed low-major opponents.
Cragg disagreed with that assessment. He believes the schedule will put St. John’s in a strong position. That it will help this new group of players develop chemistry. That it is challenging enough to prepare them for the league season and some of the teams on it can outperform projections. Coach Mike Anderson has defended the schedule, calling it a challenging slate.
“If we enter the Big East [at 9-2], that means we will have beaten an NCAA [Tournament] team in Colgate, we will have beaten a Power-Five ACC team in Pittsburgh,” Cragg said. “I’m absolutely happy with the schedule. I don’t do the schedule, but I know what’s going on with the schedule, and I’ve been doing schedules for almost 30 years. I know exactly what this team needed, and I know how they approached it.”
He added: “This team, where we are with three returning players, needs repetition and time, and that’s very clear.”
Now, it should be noted, the game against Pittsburgh was put together a few years ago. There was no way for St. John’s to know the Panthers would be projected to be one of the worst power conference schools in the country, that they would lose their top three players from last year’s team. But the Johnnies could’ve added at least a few more high-quality games. UConn, for instance, is facing St. Bonaventure at a neutral site. That’s a game I would’ve liked to see on St. John’s schedule. It could’ve begun a home-and-home series with a power conference opponent, which is something the program is looking into for next year.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe St. John’s knocks off Kansas. Maybe this soft non-conference schedule enables the new players to gain confidence rather than get beaten down. Rutgers reached last year’s NCAA Tournament as a No. 10 seed, despite scheduling in a similar fashion, and nearly reached the Sweet 16.
It’s still November. So much can change. But the odds suggest otherwise. St. John’s gave itself such a small margin for error. The loss at Indiana magnified that potential problem.