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Strong returning cast aims to lead Red Storm back to Tourney
This preview and more on St. John's and the Big East are available in the Athlon Sports 2013-14 College Basketball Preseason Annual. The magazine is available online or on newsstands everywhere.
St. John's Facts & Figures
Last season: 17-16 (8-10 Big East)
Postseason: NIT second round
Coach: Steve Lavin (51-47 at St. John's)
Big East projection: Fifth
Postseason projection: NCAA Round of 64
It wasn’t just that St. John’s fourth-year head coach wanted to forget 2012-13 as soon as possible. It was more the promise the coming season holds that has him — and Red Storm fans — feeling that the future, finally, is now.
“I like where we are, and I like where we’re headed,” Lavin says.
Consider that St. John’s returns 91.6 percent of its scoring and 88.3 percent of its rebounding from a 17–16 NIT team. A roster that was dominated by freshmen and sophomores is now a year older and a year more seasoned. And that roster now includes Rysheed Jordan, a top-30 national recruit who is expected to make an immediate contribution.
There is one key unanswered question as St. John’s begins play in the new Big East, the basketball-centric spinoff from the old Big East: How will Lavin deal with the issue of junior guard De’Angelo Harrison, who led the team in scoring last year (17.8 ppg) before he was suspended for the final six games?
JaKarr Sampson, the 2012-13 Big East Rookie of the Year, is ready to add the responsibility of leadership to his other considerable contributions.
“I’m pushing myself to be more of a leader, rather than being in the back row because I’m a freshman,” says Sampson, who averaged 14.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
The 6-8, 204-pound Sampson gives the Johnnies a solid foundation for what could be a top-notch frontcourt, one that also features shot-blocking specialist Chris Obekpa. The 6-9 Obekpa, though raw offensively, led the nation in blocks last year with an average of 4.0 per game.
There’s also some interior depth in the form of God’sgift Achiuwa and junior college transfer Orlando Sanchez, who has finally been cleared academically. Achiuwa averaged 9.4 points and 5.8 rebounds two years ago before redshirting last year. The 6-9 Sanchez will help in the low post with his rebounding ability for a team that struggled on the boards last season.
Sir’Dominic Pointer and Marc-Antoine Bourgault will compete for time on the wing.
Lavin now has options at point guard — with the added bonus of being able to keep Harrison at the shooting guard spot, which is his natural position. Junior Phil Greene IV was solid running the point a year ago, averaging 10.1 points and 2.6 assists. Jordan, one of the nation’s top point guard recruits, will push for some of those minutes immediately. His ability to also play the 2 offers Lavin the luxury of some flexibility in the backcourt.
But the focus will still be on Harrison, who missed the final six games of the ’12-13 season to recurring tardiness and poor behavior, according to published reports. Harrison is a prolific scorer, but he needs to improve his efficiency. At the time of his suspension, he was shooting 34.7 percent overall and 28.6 percent from three in league games. When he’s on his best behavior, Harrison is a legitimate weapon.
Jamal Branch, a 13-game starter, and Felix Balamou, a slasher with some promise, provide depth. There’s also the addition of a much-needed 3-point presence — St. John’s was last in the Big East last year in 3-point shooting at 27.1 percent — with Harvard transfer Max Hooper available after sitting out last season.
Five-star point guard Rysheed Jordan is touted by the school as the highest-rated recruit in Steve Lavin’s four years. Jordan averaged 25 points as a senior. Junior college transfer Orlando Sanchez, ineligible last season, will bring a post presence and some needed rebounding. Harvard transfer Max Hooper, a 6-6 wing, will help improve the league’s worst 3-point shooting offense from a year ago.
Factoid: 7.3. St. John’s led the nation with 7.3 blocked shots per game — 0.6 more than any other team — thanks in large part to a school-record 133 from freshman Chris Obekpa.
Talent isn’t the issue with this team. Pulling it all together is. A lot will depend on how much Harrison has matured — if at all — upon his return to the active roster.
Lavin must also refine his team’s offensive skills. St. John’s was among the nation’s worst offensive teams a year ago, ranking 314th in effective field goal percentage (according to KenPom.com) and 315th in free throw percentage.
But the team’s most pressing needs (rebounding and 3-point shooting) can be filled with the additions of Sanchez and Hooper, who both sat out last season. Point guard depth was addressed as well with Jordan’s arrival.
On paper, this is an NCAA Tournament team with the potential to reach the Sweet 16. Lavin’s task is turn that potential into a reality.