Red Storm enter Big East play on a roll 1

LJ Figueroa scored 21 points in a 70-67 win over No. 16 Arizona last Saturday. St. John’s enters Big East play with an 11-2 mark in the first season under new head coach Mike Anderson. They play Butler at Carnesecca Arena on New Year’s Eve.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. St. John’s looks good again heading into conference play.

Two seasons ago, they were 10-2 before finishing 6-15. Last season, they were 12-0 and went 9-13 the rest of the way.

This year feels a little different. The team enters conference play 11-2 after a win over No. 16 Arizona. It was a game the Johnnies entered as 11.5 point underdogs and they did it without Mustapha Heron, unavailable with an ankle injury.

Mike Anderson has his team playing high-intensity basketball at both ends of the court. St. John’s is 11th in the country in rebounding, tied for 17th in forcing turnovers and 29th in field-goal percentage defense. And the team is one of three in the country to have a top-75 defense while also playing at a tempo ranked among the 25 fastest.

In the upset over Arizona, St. John’s built a big lead by taking the ball to the basket.

“Without a doubt, we’re an attacking team,” Anderson said. “We’re not just going to be a jump shooting team, and that’s why I really emphasize what our guys, let’s keep attacking, let’s keep attacking.”

Nick Rutherford’s basket with 1:03 remaining gave St. John’s the lead after Arizona erased a 16-point lead. But the star of the game was LJ Figueroa, who scored 21 points, hauled in four rebounds and had three steals. He credited his teammates for his scoring.

“We practice it every day, moving and cutting, screening away, you know, just learning how to play without the ball and I think that definitely helped me and my game,” Figueroa said.

Again, Anderson gave his guys minutes. Nine players were in for more than 10 minutes but only two played for 30.

The defensive intensity has also been impressive, with pressure and a number of pass deflections. Under former coach Chris Mullin, it seemed like there were times when defense was optional. Mullin’s predecessor, Steve Lavin, once said “rebounding is the least important statistic in basketball.”

Anderson pointed to the Red Storm’s numbers on the boards in Saturday’s win, St. John’s outrebounded Arizona 40 to 35.

“As a matter of fact, a telltale sign, we beat them on the boards,” Anderson said. “They’re one of the better rebounding teams in the country, so I thought we matched their physicality. I thought that was a big, big stat in the game.”

Conference play begins on Dec. 31 at Carnesecca Arena against a ranked-Butler team. St. John’s was predicted to finish ninth in the 10-team Big East in a preseason poll, ahead of only DePaul.

But this season seems too wild to predict. Already, five No. 1 teams have been upset. DePaul, irrelevant for the last 15 years, is off to a 12-1 start, including a win over ranked Texas Tech.

Anderson never had a losing record in 17 seasons at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Missouri and Arkansas and it looks like he can keep the streak going, even with a St. John’s team that lost three key starters. Conference play should be more exciting than many fans anticipated.

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