St. John’s: still plenty of talent on hand

Senior guard Aaliyah Lewis will have to step into a leadership role this season for St. John's. Photo courtesy of St. John's Athletics.
Senior guard Aaliyah Lewis will have to step into a leadership role this season for St. John’s. Photo courtesy of St. John’s Athletics.

Building on an NCAA Tournament appearance serves as the main focus for the St. John’s Red Storm women’s basketball team as it enters the 2016-17 campaign. Though they were stopped by Auburn in the tournament’s first round, the gleam from a 23-10 season is still resonating for much of the metro New York area.

The problem for coach Joe Tartamella is finding a way to plug the holes left by the departure of Danaejah Grant and Aliyyah Handford. Both played integral roles in the drive to the postseason, which culminated in the school’s first Big East title in 28 years.The good news for both Tartamella and Red Storm fans is that there’s still plenty of talent remaining on the roster. Plus, by continuing to establish a winning atmosphere after three consecutive 23-win seasons, a positive vibe is evident among both returnees and the newcomers that have arrived.

Yet those vibes are tempered by Tartamella himself, who looks at this season as a transition year. Part of that stems from the fact that Grant and Handford accounted for close to half of the team’s average scoring last season, tossing in a combined average of 36 points per contest.

The focal points of the team now shift to the duo of Aaliyah Lewis and Jade Walker, both of whom are expected to carry a much heavier load. Lewis was usually able to be used as more of a scoring decoy in the past, thanks to Grant and Handford, but she no longer has that luxury. Where she needs no work is on her passing skills, which helped her dish out an average of four assists per game last year.

While Walker may remain as a key reserve when the season begins, it won’t be a surprise to see the senior move into the starting lineup if the Red Storm gets off to a slow start. The veteran will look to get over the double-digit hump when it comes to scoring and increase the six boards per game that she hauled down as a junior.

Putting pressure on a newcomer at this level is fraught with potential danger, yet transfer Maya Singleton looks as if she can handle the burden. She won junior college All-America accolades last season, averaging a double-double during the year while leading her team to a near-miss in the national tournament.

The presence of 6-3 forward Imani Littleton on the court will be reassuring to Tartamella, though he’s going to need her to boost her scoring and rebounding totals for St. John’s to compete this season. Littleton offers size in the paint and the speed to help fuel the offense.

St. John’s, along with Syracuse, are getting New Yorkers excited about their college hoops teams again. Reaching the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in eight years is the challenge that Tartamella and his team now face. While most observers aren’t expecting that to occur, the pace of development when it comes to the on-court lineup will be the ultimate litmus test when deciding that issue.