A lot can happen in 14 years. I mean, think about it. A child can go from birth to the eighth grade. A car can go from brand new to the junk yard. But for the Red Storm of St. John’s, a decade plus has only meant one thing: Zero NCAA tournament wins. Bupkis in the Big Dance.
But year four of the Steve Lavin era should lead to that elusive next victory in March Madness for the once proud St. John’s program. And the reason for the hope is twofold: St. John’s has the experience and it has the talent required to not only get a victory, but also to potentially bust someone’s NCAA tournament bracket.
Where They Left Off – St. John’s had a brutal end to the 2012-13 regular season, losing 8 of its last 10 games. That took a potential NCAA tourney bubble team all the way down to the NIT, where the Red Storm squeaked out a win at St. Joseph’s before getting run over by Virginia.
The final numbers weren’t pretty, 17-16 overall and an 8-10 Big East record. Not only were the statistics bad, drama once again found its way into the Red Storm locker room. Leading scorer D' Angelo Harrison was booted from the team by Lavin late in the season. Essentially, if it could go wrong, it did for the Johnnies.
What They Know – Well, first , last season is over with. That’s certainly a plus. The other good news for Red Storm fans is that over 90% of the teams scoring from last season is back. (There’s that experience factor I was referring to.)
Harrison, and his 17.8 ppg, is back with the team – apparently given a fresh start by Lavin and his staff. And, looking around at the returnees, here’s a fun fact sure to surprise your friends at parties: Did you know that big man JaKarr Sampson was the Big East Rookie of the Year last year? It’s true, look it up! Sampson will be looking to improve off of his 14.9 ppg he averaged last season.
But wait there’s more! Sampson’s frontcourt mates, Sir' Dominic Pointer and Chris Obekpa, return as well. And keeping with the wacky trivia theme, outside of Red Storm fans, you may not have known that Obekpa finished second in the nation with 4.0 blocks per game.
Oh, and who could ever forget about redshirt big man God'sgift Achiuwa (9.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg). God'sgift has to make a leap this season, if only because his name won’t allow him to do anything but be good, right? Phil Greene IV is also back in the fold, a guard who averaged 10.1 ppg last season.
(I’m beginning to question how in the world this team fell off the map so badly last year.)
What They Don’t Know…Yet – The newbies. There’s one thing you can say about Lavin, he goes all-in when it comes to recruiting. Despite the years of NCAA futility, and the subpar 2013, Lavin brought in an All-America junior college forward Orlando Sanchez and Rysheed Jordan, a top-20 recruit in the nation who was voted Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year. Also new to the mix is transfer Max Hooper. He has "hooper" in his name, so he's obviously going to be great too, right?
What Else Is New? -- Oh yeah, the league! The Big East Conference as we knew it is gone. No longer will the Red Storm battle rivals like Syracuse, Connecticut, and Pittsburgh. Instead of Orangemen, Huskies, and Panthers there will be Bulldogs (Butler), Blue Jays (Creighton), and Musketeers (Xavier).
And while basketball historians rue the day conference athletics took away their beloved Big East basketball conference, the change in landscape may be the best thing going for St. John’s. Sure, Butler and Xavier and Creighton all have history, but let’s be honest, those schools aren’t perennial powerhouses. Suddenly the Red Storm go from having to play top-10 teams like Syracuse and Louisville practically every other night to playing programs much more on their level.
In fact, out of Big East holdovers Georgetown, Marquette, Seton Hall, Providence, and Villanova, only the Hoyas are probably in a better position to win on a yearly basis. It may take a little getting used to, but the new "old" conference house for the Johnnies should feel a lot like home sooner than later.
SB Nation Top 100 Players – Jakarr Sampson, No. 96.
From Mike Rutherford:
The 2013 Big East Rookie of the Year flirted briefly with taking his game to the NBA, but ultimately chose to play at least one more season for Steve Lavin. He led the Johnnies in rebounding (6.6 rpg) and was second in scoring (14.9 ppg) in 2012-13. With the return of Sampson and leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison as well as the additions of JuCo All-American Orlando Sanchez and top 30 recruit Rysheed Jordan, hopes are high that St. John's can make it back to the big dance for the first time since 2011 and win a game there for the first time since 1999.
Non-Conference Notables –
·Wisconsin– Nov. 8 – (Sioux Falls, S.D.) I’m not sure anyone ever wants to play a Bo Ryan team, but I guess if you have to, the first game of the season is probably the time to do it.
Barclays Center Classic – Nov. 29 & Nov. 30 – (Barclays Center) St. John’s opens with Penn State and then will play either Georgia Tech or Ole Miss the next night in Brooklyn.
· Syracuse – Dec. 15 – (Madison Square Garden) Weird to see this as a non-conference battle, but still could be a huge early win for the Johnnies. Although, the question remains: Will there be more Orange than Red in the Garden for this Saturday afternoon tilt?
Strengths – We’ve covered this I think, but it bears repeating in this case. Experience can speak volumes, and for St. John’s it could very well be the difference between the NIT and the NCAA tourney. Even though the Big East has a new look, the fact Lavin can turn to so many battle-tested players like Harrison and Sampson should be mean at least a 20 win season.
Plus, Jordan, the Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year, could be the real deal at point guard. The frosh point should be able to free up Harrison in the backcourt and drive and dish to the bigs underneath.
Weaknesses – Outside of intangibles like chemistry, one of the main reasons St. John’s faltered late last season was because it collectively couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with a mortar shell. How bad was the Red Storm? Try 27 percent from deep bad. Opponents were able to clog the lane and force St. John’s into taking and missing a lot of long-range shots. This is an area where Hooper could provide significant help, if the kid from Harvard can continue to drain shots from deep like he did in the Ivy League.
So What Does It All Mean? - The Big East is likely to go through either Georgetown or Marquette, but after those two, St. John’s could work its way to a top-three finish. That should mean another trip to the Big Dance, for what would be the program’s second since 2011. But bigger than that, St. John’s should expect to ride Harrison and Sampson and its wealth of experience (with Jordan and Sanchez being X-factors) to at least one NCAA tournament win. Wins like that are worth waiting for, I suppose.