St. John’s fans expected a regular NCAA Tournament team by now. When head coach Steve Lavin was brought in five years ago to revive the Red Storm program from the woeful Norm Roberts era, there were high expectations based on his recruiting connections and player development abilities. Playing with a senior-laden roster in his first season at the helm, the Red Storm went on to make the NCAA Tournament before bowing out in the first round. Since then, however, Lavin’s teams have fallen well short, either striking out completely or wavering on the bubble (50-48 from 2012-14). Despite having a talented core of players ranging from the Big East’s second-leading scorer, D’Angelo Harrison (20.0 PPG), to the nation’s third-leading shot blocker, Chris Obekpa (3.5 BPG), depth, largely driven by recruiting misses, has been a problem. Highly-acclaimed recruits Adonis DeLaRosa and Keith Thomas, for example, have yet to see playing time after failing to meet academic standards, and Rysheed Jordan, the third-ranked point guard of his class, has not meshed well into the system, frequently cited for attitude problems both on and off the court. Needless to say, the fans are getting restless, and understandably so. After starting this season off strong and making its way back into the Top 25 (at one point as high as #15), St. John’s has fallen off in dramatic fashion. An 11-1 team with good wins over Minnesota and at Syracuse came into Wednesday night’s game versus Marquette having dropped four of its last five games and looking to get back on track.
For such an important game, it was remarkably sluggish. Harrison shot a dismal 3-of-18 from the field; Phil Greene and Rysheed Jordan struggled to navigate Marquette’s zone defenses; and Obekpa, while strong on the shot-blocking front, contributed little in the way of scoring. Yet the Red Storm’s defense was sufficient and vital in keeping the team afloat, grabbing 10 steals and holding Marquette to 33.9 percent shooting on the evening. The bottom line is that it was a necessary win for Steve Lavin’s squad, although an unconvincing one. “When you have a stretch where you feel snake-bitten, it’s good to have a win and get some momentum,” he said after the game. With Harrison unable to find the basket, concerns have arisen and postseason expectations have warped. “It’s clear his injury is bothering him… it’s rare for him to have back-to-back games like that,” Lavin added. A usually reliable scoring threat, there is no question Harrison will eventually find his rhythm. But the when needs to be now, as the team gears up for a huge game against Duke on Sunday. One game at a time should be this group’s mantra with its biggest test of the season just a few days away. “The Duke game presents a big opportunity for us on our home court against a very talented team. We’ve got a couple of days to prepare here and get ready. To beat Duke it’s going to be a collective effort,” Lavin said.
For a St. John’s team that appears wobbly and shaken, a midseason non-conference tilt against Duke offers the greatest of opportunities to refocus some of the negative energy that has once again started to creep into this program’s psyche.