Is This an Older But Wiser St. John’s to Start Big East Play?

Posted by Joe Dzuback on December 31st, 2013

Is St. John’s 8-4 record at this point last season versus their current 9-3 a true measure of growth for the Red Storm? According to coach Steve Lavin, the answer is no. The take on the Johnnies going into this season was one of a talented, but undisciplined, roster. Perhaps one of the two or three best teams in the conference, a squad capable of beating anyone in the Big East, but first they had to stop beating themselves.

Steve Lavin and St. John's are gearing up for conference play. (AP)

Steve Lavin and St. John’s are gearing up for conference play. (AP)

Granted, last year’s team was young with just over half a season’s worth of experience (0.64 years), but chalking their 17-16 record up to youth misses more than half the story. Suspensions, the most damaging of which was D’Angelo Harrison’s six-game hiatus at the end of the season — during which the Red Storm compiled an 0-5 record to close out conference play and crush any chance of an NCAA bid — was not the only example of time missed due to discipline problems. Baylor transfer Jamal Branch, eligible at the end of the fall 2012 semester, served a one-game suspension in early March, just over two months after first donning a Red Storm uniform.

There were many examples of play last season detrimental to team performance. With just over a minute left in an overtime game at Villanova, Branch committed a frustration foul that put Wildcat guard Ryan Arcidiacono on the line with the home team up six, where he sealed the win. Sophomore off guard Sir’Dominic Pointer was credited with three technical fouls related to skirmishes — a fight at Notre Dame in early March; another at Louisville just over two weeks earlier; and the first, versus Holy Cross in November. Freshman forward JaKarr Sampson hung on the basket after a missed offensive rebound in the Johnnies’ first round Big East Tournament game versus Villanova. The Wildcats were leading 46-40 near the midpoint of the second half when Sampson gave them two free throws and the ball. In all, St. John’s players tallied four technical fouls on top of 18 disqualifications.

Up by 14 points about 25 minutes into their game against Columbia last Saturday, Lavin subbed out forwards Orlando Sanchez and JaKarr Sampson for Chris Obekpa and God’sgift Achiuwa. The Lions promptly launched into a 17-2 run spanning seven minutes that put them on top by one. Although Lavin brought Sanchez then Sampson back in to staunch the bleeding, it took a crucial sequence, initiated when Sanchez converted on a Sampson miss, to trigger a 7-0 run which allowed the Johnnies to regain control of the game and cruise to a 65-59 win. That game could have gone either way.

“Our maturity was on display towards the end of the game,” said Lavin. He was not papering over a possible collapse, the sequence featured no technicals, nor an all-too-predictable reliance on volume scorer Harrison, to reignite the offense. “I was impressed with our maturity after Columbia made an impressive run to take the lead,” Lavin said. “I thought our team showed poise and purpose going on a run of our own to put the victory away.” Poise and purpose are not the only changes worth noting. Despite a single game suspension dished out to Jordan, the roster has logged only seven disqualifications so far, (Pointer three times, Jordan, Sanchez, Obekpa and Harrison once apiece) — and no technical fouls — this season. If the controlled (read: more mature) play continues into conference play, Lavin may have a point, and the Johnnies may finish higher than their predicted fifth place in the new Big East’s first season.

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