St. John’s For Real? Some Signs Pointing That Way

There was surprise, but not shock when St. John’s found itself down 15 at the half Friday night against Saint Mary’s at Carnesecca Arena. After all, it was about time the Jarvis Curse – you know, the one that hasn’t seen the Red Storm win an NCAA Tournament game in 15 years – showed up, skittish Johnnies fans had been dreading its arrival, but after an 8-1 start that included a win at the Carrier Dome over Syracuse, maybe it was in hibernation, at least?

On this night, at least, though, a veteran St. John’s team overcame their demons and completely dominated center Brad Waldow and the Gaels after the halftime break, holding them to just 14 points (and a miniscule 0.50 points per possession) as they survived 53-47.

A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on

“The best way to break out is to turn up the heat defensively and try to get a string of shots,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. “That leads to the run-outs, causing turnovers. That and we got on the offensive boards and got some putbacks, got ourselves to the cup and got to the foul line. Then we could chip away. It’s a good sign that we were able to manufacture a win like we did tonight. There’s no 15-point play in one possession, but we slowly grinded this thing and crawled back into it.”

The Red Storm are ranked in both national polls, and really should be 11-1 (although pesky Long Beach St. and Tulane remain) when Big East play starts at Seton Hall on New Year’s Eve (there’s also a Duke game slipped in on Jan. 25 at Madison Square Garden). But you’ll forgive college basketball fans if there’s still a little bit of wait and see. Lavin and company don’t exactly have recent history on their side.

Perhaps the most astonishing part of the team that Lavin has developed is that it is a veteran bunch, which is not the way we probably imagined it when he was tasked in 2010 with rebuilding after Norm Roberts couldn’t quite piece together the ruins of the Mike Jarvis Era in six seasons. Ironically, Lavin’s most successful team to date in Queens was his first, senior-laden bunch in 2010-11 who went 12-6 in the Big East and lost to Gonzaga as a No.6 seed in the first round of the NCAAs. The Curse reared its ugly head that March when D.J. Kennedy was injured just before the NCAA Tournament.

Lavin had 10 scholarships to fill and responded with the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, but much more important issues got in the way as he was forced to miss virtually the entire season battling prostate cancer. The team went just 13-19 without him, and after another mediocre campaign in 2012-13 that saw them lose five straight to finish the regular season and record an 11th-place Big East finish, it appeared Lavin was no closer to rebuilding anything than Roberts was.

Even worse,  of that vaunted recruiting class, JaKarr Sampson announced after his sophomore season (2012-13) that he was going to the NBA, joining Maurice Harkless, who had gone the season before. On top of that, the kid who led the Red Storm in scoring in his first two seasons, D’Angelo Harrison, had been booted off the team late in the season, so surely he wouldn’t be back.

Yet going on two years later, Harrison is still here, having apparently worked out his problems, and as a senior (gasp!), is averaging 20 points per game including 21 in the comeback win Friday, potentially an important one in his future, as many eyes were tuned in to see Saint Mary’s senior Brad Waldow (a pretty amazing story in his own right), who scored 26 points and 11 rebounds.

“We have to win these games,” Harrison said. “We won this one, but now we flushed it and the next one against Long Beach St. is our biggest game.”

Less heralded members of that third-ranked recruiting class Phil Greene and Sir’Dominic Pointer have also stuck it out, and are now joined by Texas A&M transfer Jamal Branch to make a starting lineup that is 80 percent senior these days, and the other – junior rim protector Chris Obekpa – has plenty of experience in a St. John’s uniform.

Even heralded 2013 recruit Rysheed Jordan (15.4 points per game off the bench) has a decent amount of length in the tooth for a big-time college basketball player these days, although he had a tough shooting night (2-of-11) on Friday.

Still, even with all the pieces apparently in place, doubts remain about St. John’s this season, mostly because of the name it wears on the front of its jerseys. It’s easy to remember that the Johnnies put together a decent non-conference run last season before starting Big East play 0-5 and never being able to recover enough (despite posting 20 wins) to make the NCAAs, losing to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

While still a shell of its former self (whose memories are seen throughout Carnasecca Arena), the current Big East has managed to piece itself together nicely so far this season, ranking fourth in the KenPom computers (and pretty close to passing to the ACC and Big Ten). It’s a jumbled mess after clear favorite Villanova, but other than DePaul (and possibly Marquette under first-year coach Steve Wojciechowski), there won’t be any easy games. And first halves like Friday (although it should be pointed out that the conference Saint Mary’s plays in, the WCC, is currently ranked seventh in KenPom, and accounted for the Johnnies only loss this season, Gonzaga) and the one they had against Division II Franklin Pierce may prove fatal.

“The concern would be if this were a road game in the Big East and we found ourselves down in that manner, we might be down 30 at somewhere like Villanova,” Lavin said.

There are also depth concerns, with St. John’s really only going seven deep at the moment (Joey de la Rosa, a 6’11” transfer from Florida International, did get 12 minutes off the bench in his first game eligible Friday). But Harrison, Jordan, Greene, and Pointer are all averaging double digits, and the Red Storm currently stand fifth in the nation in adjusted defense (behind only Louisville, Kentucky, Texas, and Virginia) and ninth in defensive eFG% (40.1).

So the Johnnies may not return to the NCAA Tournament with a swashbuckling style, but given the recent history of the situation, their fans won’t care in the slightest, will they?

“We have high expectations for ourselves, always higher than the fans have,” Lavin said. “We’ve always been picked sixth, fifth, or whatever. But we also realize we have a lot of work to do to get there.”

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