November 25 2015: St John's center Yankuba Sima during introductions during the Maui Invitational at  Lahaina Civic Center on Maui, HI. (Photo by Aric Becker/Icon Sportswire)
St Johns Red Storm

Major conference dark horse: St. John’s Red Storm

Aric Becker/Icon Sportswire

The St. John’s Red Storm are in a weird phase of their sixth rebuild since the Lou Carnesecca era came to an end in 1992. Chris Mullin is entering what will only be his second year (ever) coaching a basketball team, the squad remains disturbingly young, and the annual potential awakening of this New York sleeping giant always appears to prefer to hit the snooze button.

What’s a dark horse anyway?

That’s an important question to ask. In this Today’s U series of Major Conference Dark Horses, certain teams like Kentucky or Duke or Xavier, obviously need not apply. Nor do teams with an overwhelming surplus of hype. After all, how can the horse be in the shadows if everyone — as well as their respective mothers — is pounding their chest, screaming about how awesome that team will be?

One must find a team which faces low expectations, but has the potential to magically find its way to the glorious land of overachievement. Enter the Red Storm, a portrait of potential-laden youth with a puncher’s chance to knock out destiny.

Don’t get it twisted, either. The Johnnies enter the season a broken, flawed, riddled-with-more-questions-than-answers team.

St. John’s returns several players of consequence. That’s the good news. The bad… well, those important pieces from last season’s squad managed to win a grand total of only eight collegiate basketball games. For those inept in the math department, that is less than ideal.

Still, those less-than-ideal players from a previously abominable team have potential coursing through their veins. Each of them can help turn the Red Storm around. The question: How soon will that all happen?

January 16, 2016: St. John's Red Storm head coach Chris Mullin. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

January 16, 2016: St. John’s Red Storm head coach Chris Mullin. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

There’s Federico Mussini. An irresponsibly confident player. The kind who is crazy fun to watch when playing well, but makes fans sick to their tummies whenever he hurls an ill-fated 30-foot bomb.

Mussini is an inefficient guard. As a freshman, the Reggio Emilia, Italy, product averaged 10.7 points per game on atrocious 34-percent shooting from the floor and a woeful 30-percent clip beyond the arc. However, a plot twist could lead to a needed evolution in his game.

With Marcus LoVett being deemed eligible by the NCAA, Mussini’s role on the team should change. Hell, he might become a sixth man this season. If not that, the guard will no longer be forced to handle the rock as much — leaving him in better positions to succeed in one-on-one battles against opposing guards. (For the sake of discussing this dark horse as one that can rise from the shadows, we will blatantly ignore Mussini’s lackluster defense.)

We can’t forget about Yankuba Sima, whose body is so filled with potential one can see it leaking from his ears.

A 6-11 center, Sima had a solid but unspectacular freshman campaign. A poor free-throw shooter who also appeared to be rebounding-deficient, he has more positives than negatives as a player, at least in terms relative to what he should become as he continues to develop.

Under the assumption he has developed, even if only slightly, the Red Storm will return a player who averaged 7 points and 6 rebounds per game as a wiry (thin) freshman. He should be more physically and mentally prepared to handle the treacherous voyage of the brutal Big East Conference.

Sima showed some flashes of growth during the FIBA Under-20 Games this summer. He also showed some of the same flaws he had last season; his inorganic feel for the game is as puzzling as his intriguing potential. A noteworthy difference: He has put on some bulk. Last year the then-freshman was incredibly thin, but he has appeared to put on somewhere between 15 and 20 valuable pounds.

We barely even touched on LoVett or Shamorie Ponds, two guards who will alleviate pressure from Mussini. They might be better skilled to run Mullin’s presumed fast-pace/quick shot offense, and could immediately turn a question mark from last season — the team’s inability to start offense in earnest — into a net-positive.

All of these players — and their supposed worth — are only ideas. They are by no means facts or guarantees. At best, they are optimistic projections.

It is also worth noting that their potential hinges on how much Mullin has developed as a basketball coach — not only in game situations, but how he has helped every player on the roster grow individually during practices.

That’s mostly the point. This is what makes St. John’s a dark horse. All the unknowns, variables, and negatives are very real, which puts the Red Storm in a position of dealing with tempered — if not low — expectations. That remains true, but so too does the potential for them to become something special.

It is expected to happen at some point. Whether or not that happens this season remains to be seen, but don’t sleep on this sleeping giant, because who knows — maybe this is the year the giant actually hears the alarm go off.

Major conference dark horse: St. John’s Red Storm
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