By: Sam Meyerkopf / @HoopLikeDrazen
It was pouring rain outside. The drops of rain were slamming down so hard it felt like we were all being punished for going to this game. And we kind of were. Every fan came into Lou Carnesecca Arena Thursday night soaking wet. And even though it was raining outside, the same splash could not be seen going through the nets for either St. John’s or Rutgers.
In a game where Rutgers shot 25 of 60 from the field (41.7%) and five of 14 from the strip (35.7%), St. John’s was equally bad, going 20-62 (32.3%) and 13 of 24 from the stripe (54.2%). But in the end, it was the Johnnies tough minded play that led to 61-59 victory. And even though the game was a different level of sloppy, it was an intense and fun finish. The eventual winners were down 16 points six minutes into the second half, crawling to just 29 points through 26 minutes. But they didn’t flinch and came out victorious off of the play of two European freshmen.
Federico Mussini – Italian Point Guard
Mussini having led the FIBA European U-18 Championships in scoring and having played minutes on hometown Reggio Emilia in both Serie A and the Eurocup, is no secret to everyone in Europe. The kid has cojones. He’s never been one to be flustered and always been one to help his team get out of a tight jam. For Mussini, he is St. John’s only eligible point guard, meaning right now, it’s his team.
Rutgers used an aggressive trapping method on most ball screen coverage last night. Wherever the screen was set (left wing, right wing, top of the key…) the defending big would hedge out, the guard would go over the top and Mussini was forced into being a playmaker. He finished with four turnovers last night but they were not all on him, he was forced to make plays in tight situations because his teammates couldn’t create much offense. He had to take chances. Most often in the ball screen situation, Mussini would back out or take a couple hard dribbles till he could pivot around and find a passing lane to sneak the ball to the rolling big. A few times it resulted in a wide open mid range shot, which the St. John’s bigs could not convert, leading to even more pressurized traps by the defense knowing they didn’t really have to recover to the rolling big.
In the second half Mussini developed a new strategy, rejecting the screen and going the opposite way so there would be no trap and opening space for him to get into the lane for a shot or drive and kick options. And even though his jumper was off last night (3/11 from three), he was able to create more space for himself and his teammates as the game went on with his reading of the defense and it at least led to some overall uptick in St. John’s scoring (26 first half points, 35 second half points.
And while Mussini only hit three treys, they were all pretty crucial. Two long range bombs came in the first half with St. John’s down 19-9, 14 minutes into the first half. 14 minutes into the game, St. John’s had NINE points. Mussini hit two three’s, along with a Ron Mvouika three, that gave them nine quick points and saved the team from being blown off the floor in the first half. And his other three pointer came at a clutch moment, with St. John’s still on the comeback trail down five with three minutes left and Federico made it a one score game. And this coming after he missed two free throws a minute earlier, something basically unheard of for him. But it didn’t fluster him and his late three was huge.
Mussini ended the game with 13 points and zero assists, but even with no official helpers, as the only player who could navigate the pick and roll he constantly took two defenders on and created hockey assists and forced the defense to move and make decisions.
The last Mussini play that deserves recognition is with 40 seconds left and St. John’s up 1, Mussini got a quick first step by his guy, his defender recovered and he gave him a quick crossover step back at the right elbow that looked like a vintage closing shot to put the Johnnies up three. The ball barely rimmed out, the story of the night for Federico but looking optimistically at a foreign freshman playing 33 minutes in his third college game ever, it was the poise that stood out. He never got rattled, he never thought that it was anyone else that should close this game out. He wanted to be the closer. And even though there were a lot of misses on Thursday night, these are essential reps for a player that’s going to play a lot this year and be the closer and main playmaker for a Big East time. Keep shooting Federico.
Yankuba Sima – Spanish Center
At 6’11” and a reported 205 lbs, Sima is basically St. John’s only low post presence. He played 39 minutes versus Rutgers. 39 minutes is an insane amount of time to play as a center, especially in their third college game ever. In those 39 minutes he had 13 points, nine rebounds, and six blocks while shooting five for six from the free throw line and giving up three turnovers.
Sima is still really raw, he’s long and lanky but has a ways to go with adding strength. His shooting and post play are a serious work in progress. And the slowness with which he sometimes takes to make a decision with the ball can really hurt. St. John’s gave him many post touches but it was really from a place of, they needed to move the ball somewhere and he was a big target to pass to. He had a couple decent jump hooks and a jump shot that went in but was largely off shooting the ball, having real problems with touch and even air balling a 8 feet and in shot. And he would often hold the ball for way too long in the post, all his turnovers coming off being stripped in the post.
Sime kept working though and in a situation with other scorers around him he’d be more of a garbage man than a post player at this point in his career. Four of his nine rebounds were offensive and some of St. John’s best offensive came when he or Felix Balamou were able to crash the offensive glass.
Sima’s six blocks were very encouraging. He’s so long and moves so well around the paint that he’s always a threat to contest a drivers’ shot. Sometimes on Thursday night his timing was late or reaction speed a little off and in a year or two, a night like tonight could easily become a 10 block night. His potential is off the charts for a defensive, rim protecting big in college.
Besides adding weight, development wise Sima needs to figure out an offensive weapon. A mid-range jumper, running to the rim harder off setting a screen and finishing, or being able to get to his jump hook off quickly in the post. He needs a weapon so when he gets those many post touches or passes off the short roll this season, he can make a play. He did have three assists, his second game with as many helpers, and gives the possibility of making plays for others with his touches too. Similar to what Rutgers did on Thursday night, many teams are just going to blitz Mussini in ball screen situations since he’s such a good shooter and make someone else make a play. Sima is going to get a ton of reps catching around the block or elbows and we’ll see what he can learn to do to become a better scoring threat.
Sima and Mussini had a lot of ups and downs in their third game of the season and St. John’s is no where close to even an NIT level team at this point. But that’s not the point, this is a two, three, four year plan for them to get better and for the team to grow in Coach Chris Mullin’s first season. But as two freshman from across the pond, it’s pretty damn cool that they are the ones that have been handle the keys to a Big East team. Surely big name recruits will come in and transfers too, Mussini will have to learn to play on and off the ball, Sima will have to deal with not getting as many touches and play less but more effective minutes. But in the end they’re getting the type of reps almost no other freshman in the country are getting and this will be invaluable experience as they continue to develop.