St. John’s once-promsing season now faces huge COVID-19 challenge

It was only five days ago that optimism surrounded St. John’s.

There were reasons to believe Mike Anderson’s team was beginning to turn the corner. It played better in wins over quality mid-majors Monmouth and Colgate. It committed fewer turnovers and was beginning to show cohesion.

Then came Saturday when Julian Champagnie tested positive for COVID-19.

Nothing has gone right since.

The Red Storm played arguably their worst game of the season in a two-point loss at the Garden to Pittsburgh, one of the worst power-conference teams in the country. That setback may stay with the Johnnies for a while.

All indications are they won’t play another game for some time. On Wednesday, two more players — Joel Soriano and Tareq Coburn — tested positive for COVID-19. On Thursday, the team’s Big East opener against Butler was called off after, according to sources, at least two more St. John’s positive tests, following the cancellation of Monday’s original league opener against Seton Hall due to a COVID-19 outbreak among the Pirates.

It is uncertain whether St. John’s will have the required seven healthy scholarship players by next Wednesday to play a home game against Marquette. The New Year’s Day meeting at Georgetown, which is dealing with its own COVID-19 issues, is very much in doubt.

Those who test positive have to isolate for 10 days. At that point, provided an individual passes cardiac testing, there is a ramp-up period that can vary case by case. St John’s didn’t make anyone available for comment.

This is the last thing this team needed. More time together — not less — was imperative for a group that has struggled through most of the non-conference schedule. That has not adapted well to Anderson’s up-tempo style in which scoring in transition and taking care of the ball is so important. That has failed to put strong halves together, let alone games, and adequately supported the team’s two stars, Champagnie and Posh Alexander.

St. John's Red Storm head coach Mike Anderson reacts in the first half of a game against Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden, Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.
Mike Anderson
Corey Sipkin/New York Post

The newcomers have been inconsistent. The coach has yet to settle on a rotation. Roles have not been strongly defined. St. John’s is next-to-last in the league in 3-point percentage defense (35.2) and last in defensive rebounding percentage (68.2), two areas in which the new roster figured to improve. And now several players are in quarantine.

This certainly won’t help, and neither will the oft-criticized non-conference schedule. St. John’s, with a NET ranking of 115 and the dreaded Quad 4 loss to Pittsburgh, willingly put itself in a position where it needed a big league season to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the Anderson era. But now, there’s no guarantee all these canceled games will be made up.

The schedule was set up nicely for St. John’s to start strong for a change in the Big East, particularly after the Seton Hall contest was called off. Three of the first four league games were at home. The one road contest was at Georgetown, which is expected to be the worst team in the Big East. But now, that soft spot may go away. There is a chance St. John’s won’t be able to return to action until hosting improved DePaul on Jan. 4, before a brutal two-game road trip at Providence and Connecticut.

This once-promising season could easily turn into all-too familiar disappointment. St. John’s has yet to come remotely close to meeting preseason projections. It left itself very little margin for error, and COVID-19 has created even less.

Now it is in the COVID-19 unknown. There is no telling how the virus impacts the players that have been infected. There could be more positives. It is uncertain what this team looks like when it is whole again, or even when that will be.

So much has changed for this program in five days — none of it any good.