Ordinarily, Mike Anderson would have preferred to keep the momentum going, to follow up the Dec. 20 win over Georgetown with more practices and games and see the cohesion that was starting to build continue.
But this season is not ordinary. Nothing about it is. Giving his players a chance to go home for a few days was of utmost importance.
“They needed the break,” the St. John’s coach said in a phone interview in advance of Saturday’s home game against DePaul, the team’s first game in nearly two weeks. “I could see the relief [on their faces]. … You could see it was wearing on them.”
From the end of July until this recent break, the Red Storm players have been in their own bubble, mostly keeping to themselves in their dorm room or apartment. They get food delivered. They rarely go outside if it doesn’t involve a practice or game. It has worked — St. John’s hasn’t had a single positive COVID-19 test — but a breather was needed.
“It’s kind of hard to just be isolated in the house,” senior guard Rasheem Dunn said. “The whole thing can be pretty overwhelming, not being able to go out at night, be with friends. Us having an opportunity to go back home and reconnect with our loved ones, it was pretty good.”
It is why St. John’s jumped at the opportunity to postpone last Wednesday’s game against Villanova at Jay Wright’s suggestion. It allowed for a break, a time for players to see loved ones and return fresh and refocused.
The hope is the time away won’t have a negative on-court impact. St. John’s (6-4, 1-3) was making positive strides when the team dispersed. It played arguably its best game of the season in the 94-83 win over Georgetown, a more connected performance in which the Johnnies had 19 assists on 30 made field goals and put forth an improved defensive effort. That came after a team meeting in which the team’s core principles — defense, effort and sharing the ball — were emphasized.
Mixing in several new key players, such as freshman point guard Posh Alexander and junior college transfers Isaih Moore and Vince Cole, hasn’t gone as smoothly as some may have expected. St. John’s enters Saturday’s game against DePaul second-to-last in the Big East in points allowed per game (80.3) and field-goal percentage defense (48.9), and last in 3-point percentage defense (39.6), numbers well below what last year’s team produced on the defensive end.
“More than anything, I’m looking for consistency in how we play and our guys play,” Anderson said. “I still believe we got to get better defensively for 40 minutes. We’re good for 20, 25 minutes. You’re not just going to outscore people. I’m just looking for consistency from guys who start out to guys who come off the bench.”
The schedule has so far worked in St. John’s favor after the 0-3 start in league play. It gave the Johnnies a chance to build up needed confidence by hosting the two projected worst teams in the league in back-to-back contests. They took care of Georgetown, and now, after a lengthy break, the hopes is to do the same with DePaul on Saturday and get within a game of .500 in conference play before a two-game road trip at Xavier and No. 11 Creighton.
Redshirt freshman point guard John McGriff (ankle) will return on Saturday after missing the last two games.