The first twenty minutes at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn Saturday afternoon looked a lot like the first twenty minutes of every game so far this season for St. John's.
The Red Storm started sluggishly against Georgia Tech in the Barclays Center Classic consolation game. Which is exactly what the Johnnies do, coasting until halftime and then resetting the game over the final twenty minutes. That type of effort came up just short against Penn State, but D'Angelo Harrison and JaKarr Sampson led the charge back from as many as 15 points, as St. John's (5-2) beat Georgia Tech, 69-58.
After clawing to within seven points at the intermission, the Red Storm outscored the Jackets by 18 points in the second half. Harrison, St. John's leading scorer, tallied 21 points, including hitting an astounding 12-of-13 shots from the free throw line. And Sampson, the sophomore big man, was a major reason in the turn around. Making 5-of-7 his seven shots from the field, Sampson scored all 16 of his points in the second half. Against a roster in Georgia Tech that includes just one player above 6-foot-8, Sampson took control of the paint.
Actually, it wasn't just Sampson, as Red Storm center Chris Obekpa blocked six Yellow Jacket shots just a day after registering seven blocks against Penn State. For his efforts, the nation's leading shot blocker (5.7 bpg) was named to the All-Tournament Team.
But while a comeback win is still a win just the same, St. John's head coach Steve Lavin has to be concerned about his team sleepwalking through first halves. The Red Storm didn't even score during the first seven minutes of the game -- and that 15 point deficit actually came with the score 19-4. Trailing by 15 sounds bad, but it always looks even worse when the losing team hasn't even hit double-digits.
If not for an eye-popping 24-2 run in the second half, the Johnnies could have been looking at an 0-2 weekend in Brooklyn. Not good for a team about to face top-ten Syracuse couple of weeks and then hit a fairly rigorous Big East schedule. Lavin, for his part, isn't publicly showing his worry.
"I thought the kids played with purpose at the end of the first half and throughout the second half. We played as a cohesive bunch and I think these last two games were good for us. Sometimes you don't play well and win, and sometimes you play great and lose. It seems counter-intuitive, somewhat like life. I think in both of these games, the loss and the win, our team grew up a bit."
And there is something to that, to this growing "up a bit" thing for St. John's. While it hasn't been pretty, the Red Storm do have 5 wins in 7 games, and they have clear points of positivity. Harrison, while only shooting 38.7 percent from the field this early season, is the clear leader of the team -- a hugely important safety valve for Lavin. Plus, Sampson, last season's Big East Rookie of the Year, is good for 12 points and seven boards a game and has hit double figures scoring three times already this season.
Throw in Obekpa's shot-blocking and some big games by guard Phil Greene IV and the Red Storm have the right parts to be a complete and scary team. But complete and scary teams don't usually take home "third place" trophies like St. John's did in Brooklyn. Which speaks to those first half woes, constantly falling behind teams early, but you can also look into the final box score from Saturday to see why St. John's may not be living up to its fullest potential.
Ten Johnnies saw 12 minutes or more of action against the Yellow Jackets. Which is how some teams, like Missouri or even Nolan Richardson's Arkansas Razorbacks of the 90's, like to play -- throwing body after body against the opponent. Yes, Lavin threw some full-court press out in Brooklyn but he isn't about "Forty Minutes of Hell." The reason why so many Red Storm players are seeing action is simple: Lavin hasn't found the right rotation yet.
For his part, Lavin seems to be indicating this team could be 9 or even 10 deep.
"The strength of this team is it's versatility. It's the deepest team that I've coached, so we're going to be a team that utilizes its depth."
But I wonder what the rotation is going to look like come January?
We've seen highly touted freshman guard Rysheed Jordan struggle, scoring just 4 points while committing 2 turnovers to just 1 assist against the Yellow Jackets. Greene and Jamal Branch have played well for Lavin, but waiting for Jordan's experience to catch up to his talent is causing some serious growing pains. And a big reason why Max Hooper and Greene were in the starting lineup against Georgia Tech.
Figuring out who plays where and for how long is going clearly going to take time.
Yet at some point in time, sooner than later preferably for Lavin, something that was a big problem from Saturday, St. John's is going to have to make shots, specifically from distance. Opponents have the great equalizer when facing the Red Storm: zone. 4-of-12 for St. John's from three against the Yellow Jackets, and even factoring in an 11-of-20 performance against Penn State, the Red Storm are still shooting under 30 percent from three for the season (29.1). Ugly. In fact, St. John's ranks 232 in field goal percentage (43 percent) and 235 in points per game (70.7)
But after playing 7 games in just a couple of weeks, two in about 15 hours of each other for the Barclays Center Classic, the Red Storm now have a week off -- with a 1:30 p.m. tip time next Saturday against Fordham -- to work on all that ails it. And maybe more specifically, for now, to get ready for the first half of the next game.