At this time last year, everything was new for Mike Anderson.
New players. New team. New conference. New school. New home.
He didn’t know what to expect.
A year later, even amid a pandemic that eliminated summer workouts and wiped away a scheduled international trip, there is a comfort level, particularly with the roster he has entering his second year at St. John’s.
He has players experienced in his expectations. He has newcomers he spent time recruiting and getting familiar with. He has the potential for depth at every position that was previously lacking, necessary for his uptempo, pressing style.
It is why, despite the uncertainty due to COVID-19, a schedule that needs to be remade on the run, Anderson enters the upcoming season, slated to begin Nov. 25, so optimistic. He returns four starters. He adds five newcomers he believes can all contribute. The roster is better suited to play fast, with more depth at guard, on the wing and at forward.
“This team here is intriguing. I’m liking what I’m seeing thus far,” Anderson told The Post in a phone interview. “Depth was a big problem for us last year, and as far as I’m seeing it right now, I think we’ll be able to develop more depth this year.”
St. John’s began workouts in early August, and it has progressed to the point where the entire team can now practice together. The focus has been on skill development, but there have been some controlled scrimmages. Health has been the priority amid the virus, with testing up to twice a week, an emphasis on social distancing, educating players on precautions they should take and wearing masks. One player tested positive early on, but Anderson said everyone is in good health.
“We kind of created our own bubble,” he said.
Last year, Anderson inherited two players with experience: LJ Figueroa and Mustapha Heron. They were supposed to carry St. John’s. Heron was mostly ineffective and injured. Figueroa struggled with consistency and transferred following the season to Oregon. St. John’s still went 17-15, extending Anderson’s streak of winning seasons as a coach to 18, mostly due to the strong play of the supporting cast, players like Greg Williams Jr., Marcellus Earlington, Rasheem Dunn and Julian Champagnie, a Big East All-Freshman team selection.
Now, they are being counted on to lead the way, after a year of growth. Champagnie was a freshman. Williams and Earlington were basically freshmen, in their first season of seeing meaningful minutes. It was Dunn’s first season in the Big East after transferring from Cleveland State.
“You got a core here now. … We got some guys with some experience. Last year, I couldn’t say that,” Anderson said. “Now, they get a chance to advance and hopefully be able to lead a team.”
They will be joined by a group of newcomers Anderson is high on, from George Washington grad-transfer forward Arnaldo Toro to junior college first-team All-American Vince Cole and three-star point guard Posh Alexander. The 6-foot-6 Cole, who averaged 18.7 points on 44.1 shooting from 3-point range in junior college, may be asked to help fill the void left by Figueroa, while Alexander could challenge Dunn as the starting point guard. Anderson, though, seemed most excited about Toro, a 6-8, 248-pound banger who will provide a new dimension as a player capable of scoring in post-up situations and providing rebounding that will fuel transition opportunities.
“Arnaldo Toro is going to really help our basketball team,” Anderson said. “He’s played at this level. He’s a very experienced guy, very physical. He just knows how to play the game.”
There is so much uncertainty about this upcoming season due to the virus. Will there be fans? Will there be home games? How many games can be played? But on the court, there appears to be fewer questions for Anderson and St. John’s.