Mike Anderson sees St. John’s as contenders in Big East, dancers in NCAA tournament

Andre Curbelo showed plenty of flashes at Illinois, but Long Island Lutheran product hopes to put it all together with return home to play for St. John’s. (Michael Allio /AP)

St. John’s men’s basketball coach Mike Anderson says every year he feels pressure to make the NCAA Tournament.

Game on for a program with a starved fan base yearning for its first NCAA bid since 2019, its first non-First Four game since 2015 and its first tournament win in 22 years.

In year four of his tenure at St. John’s, this may be his best opportunity and one this group should capitalize on if the program is ready to take the next step in that progress and whether Anderson can prove he can help the Johnnies return to that March promised land.

The loss of Big East First Team selection Julian Champagnie to the NBA from a team that had NCAA aspirations but underwhelmed last season leaves a big scoring hole. However, in a transition year in the league, the return of eight core players, the additions of Andre Curbelo (Illinois) and David Jones (DePaul) through the transfer portal plus what Anderson says is an “underrated” freshman class has the Johnnies believing they’re in the mix to compete in the Big East and for an NCAA bid.

“I feel like this team [last year] there were eight or nine games that you talk about where [if] they made plays down the stretch, that changed the fortunes of our season,” Anderson said at St. John’s media day on Thursday about a team that went 17-15. “Now, did we learn from that? Did we bring in guys that can add to that? I think so. That being said, the pressure is on for each and every day, trying to get better and become the best team we can be. We have size, we have guard play, we have versatile parts. We got a jump start this summer [with a trip to the Dominican Republic]. I think we’re going to see a big difference with this team.”

That big difference begins with how well Curbelo works in tandem with junior guard Posh Alexander. The two playmakers can affect the game on both ends in Anderson’s system. Anderson’s successful teams at UAB, Missouri and Arkansas all used guard play as hallmarks.

“We saw some of it in Dominican where [Curbelo and Alexander] played together,” Anderson said. “They did a good job of playing off one another… Great players want to play with great players. And I think those guys are capable of scoring. Obviously, they’re pass guys first. And the thing I’m really excited about is what they can bring defensively.… I think our fans better get ready for some highlights. Highlights taking place every night.”

Alexander can’t wait to see what he and Curbelo are capable of doing together.

“Well, sharing a court with Curbelo, it’s an honor. He’s such a great point guard,” said Alexander, who averaged 13.8 points, 5.5 assists and 2.3 steals per game last season. “Even off the court, he’s a great guy. “We try to build on [basketball], but it’s not just about basketball. Off the court, talking and hanging out and just building chemistry and just to be on the court together, Like having a guy like him that could guard 94 feet and being on a press on defense is insane.”

Curbelo, the Long Island Luthern product, was a strong contributor off the bench on Illinois’ 2020-21 team that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but his sophomore year was curtailed by an early-season concussion and he never seemed to get right after that for an Illini team that lost in the Round of 32 for the second straight season. Returning to New York feels right for him.

“It’s good knowing that you have the right support system and the right people around you, because when things go bad those people will be there for me regardless,” Curbelo said. “I am happy with the decision I made, I don’t regret anything at all and I am just happy to be a Johnnie.”

Replacing Champagnie’s 19.2 points per game will be a challenge. Something Jones, the 6-6 wing who averaged 14.5 points for the Blue Demons, may be able to provide that in part.

“To me, [Jones] is a guy that can get buckets. He’s a bucket getter. He can score and score in a variety of ways,” Anderson said. “Really gritty, he can rebound the basketball. One of the more confident guys you ever gonna see. And so hopefully he can give us that productivity. But I think he’s gonna be able to do some other things too.”

Posh headlines a group of eight returning players that includes senior center Joel Soriano, junior guard Dylan Addae-Wusu, senior forward Esahia Nyiwe, sophomore guard O’mar Stanley, senior guard Montez Mathis and sophomore guard Rafael Pinzon. That along with freshmen Kolby King, AJ Storr, and Mohamed Keita gives St. John’s perhaps one of the deeper rosters in the Big East.

Getting an NCAA bid out of the tough-as-nails league may not be so harrowing for the Johnnies. With Jay Wright retiring from Villanova after another Final Four run, Creighton is expected to be the favorite in what many bracketologists believe could be a 4-6 bid league. UConn, Xavier, with Sean Miller returning to the Musketeers sideline, defending regular season champ Providence among those making up the gauntlet for the Johnnies in the upper echelon of the league.

“We have a lot of talent, probably the most talent I’ve had since I’ve been here. [We] have more guys who fit what we’re doing. We have eight guys that are coming back that we brought in and fit what we’re doing in our system,” Anderson said.

“The biggest key is the core guys that are coming back. We have an opportunity to play in the Big East which is a league that is going to be wide open this year. [There are] a lot of teams [in this conference] that are really good, and we’re one of those teams.”