St. John’s Freshmen Making the Most of a Rebuilding SeasonPosted by EJacoby on January 17th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is an RTC contributor and correspondent. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. He filed this report after Georgetown’s win over St. John’s on Sunday.
As a basketball program, St. John’s and its fans have not had a whole lot to smile about this season. Sunday afternoon was no exception, when Georgetown came into Madison Square Garden and handed the Red Storm their fourth loss in five games with a 69-49 victory. But despite the result, freshman forward Maurice Harkless dazzled a packed crowd with 21 points and 10 rebounds in a comeback effort when his team was down, in the process showing why there’s so much promise for the rebuilding Red Storm. Between Harkless and fellow freshman star D’Angelo Harrison, St. John’s has the necessary pieces to turn a losing, learning season into future success.
St. John’s’ season record reflects all of the turmoil within the program. After Sunday’s loss, the Red Storm dropped to 8-9 overall and 2-4 in Big East play. But there’s much more than just a silver lining to this dark cloud of a season. Five of the Red Storm’s six leading scorers are freshmen, which includes guards Sir’Dominic Pointer and Phil Greene in addition to the versatile trio of Harkless, Harrison, and Amir Garrett. By nearly all metrics, Harkless is the best freshman in the Big East and might be one of the most talented players in the whole conference. His totals against Georgetown upped his season averages to 15.8 PPG, 8.4 RPG, and 1.8 BPG, all team highs. He’s top five in the conference in the latter two statistics and possesses the dynamic offensive game of a future NBA small forward. Harrison has been nearly as productive, averaging 15 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.9 APG, and 1.6 SPG, and he’s had the ball in his hands most often this season when St. John’s needs a big play or shot to be made. Pointer has the look of a potential ‘glue guy,’ and he already contributes across the board on a nightly basis with about seven points, five boards, and over a block and steal per game.
The Johnnies’ talented tandem continues to grow together and their responsibilities are not those of typical freshmen. Most Big East rookies, like UConn’s Ryan Boatright and Andre Drummond, are given chances to pick their spots and provide sparks to aid veteran leaders. But at St. John’s, without their head coach guiding the way or any significant holdovers from last season, it is the freshmen that must be leaders in multiple ways, both on the stat sheet and in the locker room. Few rookies in all of college basketball have such a burden of responsibility, and the fact that St. John’s remains a competitive team on most nights is a testament to the maturity of its youngsters.
Sunday was the perfect example of the rollercoaster ride that comes with this team. Harkless was in the midst of leading his team back from a double-digit deficit, and his corner three-pointer brought the Johnnies to within seven points with under eight minutes to play. On their next possession, the freshman made a strong drive to the basket and got fouled, but missed both free throws. And on the ensuing two defensive possessions, he committed his fourth and fifth fouls of the game, and was disqualified from the game just like that. Meanwhile, Harrison was in the midst of his worst performance of the season and finished 1-12 from the field for the day. In games like this, St. John’s has very little chance to win. But when their stars shine, like in last Saturday’s 57-55 road win at Cincinnati, the Red Storm can show just how talented their young group is.
Once things start to settle back down at St. John’s, we could be looking at a team with as high a ceiling as any in the conference. By next year, five talented sophomores will have a year of experience under their belts. More talented recruits are on their way, as well as Texas A&M transfer Jamal Branch. And Steve Lavin will likely be back on the sidelines providing the guidance that these players were expecting. “Every game comes to a point where me or D [Harrison] will have to take over the game, especially one like this with a comeback like we had,” Harkless said on Sunday, “but unfortunately it wasn’t there and we didn’t execute.” Harkless and Harrison’s admirable performances are already being recognized by their peers, and the time will eventually come when they won’t have to carry as much of an everyday burden for the program. There is enough potential within the Red Storm program to make a passionate New York fan base excited for the future, no matter how painful the 2012 campaign might be.
After losing 96% of their scoring from last season, a year of growing pains for SJU was to be expected, but nothing like this. First came the preseason news that three of the Red Storm’s incoming freshmen; Jakarr Sampson, Norvel Pelle, and Amir Garrett, all Top 100 national recruits; were ruled academically ineligible to join the team. Garrett decided to stick it out with St. John’s and was declared eligible to join the team on December 21, where the swingman has since averaged 20 minutes per game and shown flashes of great athleticism. But Sampson and Pelle decided to de-commit and open their recruitment to other schools for next season. Much more serious news dropped in early October when Lavin underwent treatment for prostate cancer. Lavin recovered well from surgery and is now cancer-free, but he has not been on the sidelines to coach his team in over three months. Even more recently, Nurideen Lindsey, the team’s sophomore starting point guard, decided to transfer after nine games. This has all left associate head coach Mike Dunlap to coach a super inexperienced, thin roster into the hazardous territory that is Big East basketball.