Tipping Off the Big East Countdown: #9 St. John’sPosted by Dan Lyons on October 26th, 2012
Few programs in the country went through the adversity that St. John’s found itself facing last season. Head coach Steve Lavin underwent surgery to treat prostate cancer in October of last year, and he was only able to coach four games in early November before deciding to sit out for the rest of the season. Multiple key players left during the season for various reasons, and at times the Red Storm were only able to play with a six-man rotation of scholarship players. This year should prove to be a challenge for the Johnnies, especially after the departure of Moe Harkless following last season, but they return a solid nucleus and add a number of talented freshmen who look to continue the restoration project that is Steven Lavin’s St. John’s basketball program.
2011-12 Record: 13-19, 6-12
2011-12 Postseason: None
St. John’s non-conference schedule is fairly light. The Storm open with Detroit and the ever-dangerous Ray McCallum at Carnesecca Arena before heading to Charleston, South Carolina, for the DirecTV Charleston Classic. In the opening round of the tournament the Storm take on host College of Charleston before facing either Auburn or Murray State. The field also features Big 12 power Baylor, Boston College, Colorado, and Dayton. St. John’s will also host South Carolina in Queens in the Big East/SEC Challenge. St. John’s plays one non-conference game in Madison Square Garden, against Fordham, and will play one game in Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center against St. Francis. In the Big East, the team opens at Villanova on January 2, and has home-and-homes with Rutgers, Georgetown, Notre Dame, and DePaul.
For the second season in a row, St. John’s brings in a large array of new players. Forward Jakarr Sampson headlines the class. Sampson chose the Red Storm over programs like Kansas, Florida, Baylor, and Texas, and will likely step in and try to fill the sizable hole left by Moe Harkless. Sampson doesn’t provide much range, but he’s an explosive finisher, should be great running the floor, and has the makings of a good defender and rebounder. Nigerian big man Chris Obekpa joins Sampson in the freshman class. Obekpa played his high school ball at Our Savior New American School in Centereach, NY. The 6’9″ center is very raw, as one might expect, but he is an adept shot blocker. Obekpa comes along with guard Felix Balamou, who is also a graduate of the same high school. Forward Christian Jones was the last player added in the St. John’s recruiting class, and little is expected of him early on, but Lavin has been speaking highly of him so far this fall. Sophomore guard Jamal Branch is a big addition via transfer as well. Branch came to Queens from Texas A&M in January and expects to make an immediate impact when he is eligible to play in December. He was a top 100 recruit in the 2011 class. Lavin also brings in two junior college players from Monroe College, wing Marc Antoine-Bourgault and forward Orlando Sanchez. Bourgault is a strong shooter, which is a valuable commodity in the Big East, and Sanchez adds another big body (6’9″, 216 pounds) to fight for rebounds.
The biggest loss for St. John’s is clearly that of Moe Harkless. As a freshman last season, Harkless was one of the Big East’s most underrated players, scoring 15.3 points per game and leading St. John’s with 8.6 rebounds per contest. Harkless was selected 15th overall in the NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. The Johnnies also lost two rotation players during last season, point guard Nurideen Lindsey who is currently at Rider, and senior Malik Stith who is now playing at Fairmont State.
Whom to Watch
With Harkless out of the picture, shooting guard and leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison becomes the bona fide leader of the team. Harrison scored 16.8 points per game for the Red Storm as a freshman in 2011-12, and represented the only deep threat in the rotation. No other St. John’s player who attempted double digit three-point shots connected on better than 30% of them. Sophomore Phil Greene IV returns as Harrison’s running mate at point guard. Greene led the team in assists, although he only averaged 2.9 dimes per game, but he is a reliable distributor who protects the ball. Sophomore wings Amir Garrett and Sir’Dominic Pointer return, both looking to improve on their similar 2011-12 campaigns. The two athletic forwards combined to average around 14 points and nine rebounds per game. If Jakarr Sampson can take some time at the power forward spot, both Garrett and Pointer should be more effective players as neither will spend as much time playing out of position. Senior God’sgift Achiuwa fell a bit short of some lofty expectations last season, though he did play fairly well for a first year player in the Big East, averaging nine points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Achiuwa is one of the only legitimate post presences on this St. John’s team, and his play on the interior will be crucial in opening things up for Harrison and the other perimeter players.
Last year’s struggles may prove beneficial to the 2012-13 St. John’s team. Despite their youth, the roster features a number of experienced players, including up to four sophomores who may start, or will see hefty minutes this year. This Red Storm squad should have solid chemistry this season after the core was forced into so many minutes last season, and it should also benefit from the return of Steve Lavin. If they can integrate new players like Sampson and Branch into what they began building last year, the Storm should have solid depth and nearly as much athleticism as anyone in the Big East. St. John’s is probably still a year or so and another big recruiting class away from really competing in the Big East every year, but they have enough talent to finish in the middle of the conference and put a ton of fear into any team they face when they’re hot.