by Peter Walsh / @Peter_M_Walsh
Heading into the 2013-14 season, the St. John’s Red Storm had one of the most intriguing rosters on paper (which I wrote about at-length here). The Johnnies looked as if they were finally ready to reap the benefits of tremendous recruiting, and with Steve Lavin running the show, the Red Storm were pegged as a potential breakout team. Most analysts picked the Red Storm to finish in the bottom half of the Big East despite its obvious top-to-bottom talent due to the team’s previous maturity issues and question marks at the guard and center positions. But through 12 games, St. John’s sits at 9-3 after closing out its non-conference schedule with a win over Columbia on Saturday at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. There’s no denying this team has the pieces to give any team in the new-look Big East a run for its money during conference play and the biggest challenge for Lavin heading into the new year will be putting the right lineups together to get his team to play with the consistency they have lacked thus far.
Scheduling-wise, the Red Storm played a very balanced non-conference slate that included: a rivalry game, contests on neutral courts, a few strong mid-major teams, a few cupcake teams, and no true road games. Contrary to recent years, the Red Storm beat all the teams they were “supposed” to beat, and hanged tough against superior squads. The Johnnies lost on opening night against No. 20 Wisconsin in Sioux Falls, a scheduling decision that can only be described as awful, an overtime contest against an improved Penn State team at Barclays, and a five-point loss to No. 2 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden—a tremendous game that saw St. John’s fall behind by double-digits, roar back in the second half, then fall apart down the stretch. The Red Storm also showed its ability to win in different capacities throughout its first 12 games, scoring 80+ points five different times, and grinding out wins with defense, as they have held opponents to under 60 points seven times.
Lavin has one of the deepest rosters in the nation at his disposal and has been rotating his lineups like a hockey coach changes lines. Lavin has had the luxury of tinkering with lineups to figure out what works and what doesn’t—perhaps to the point where the team can’t find its identity. Seven players on the roster average at least 19 minutes per game and all 13 scholarship players have started at one point or another. With so many lineup changes and players constantly coming in and out, it has been tough for the team to gel to play with sustained consistency. On the flip side of that, Lavin may have used the non-conference schedule to find his best lineups and the rotation could shorten during conference play.
Junior shooting guard D’Angelo Harrison, who is averaging 19.5 points per game, is the team’s best scorer on the perimeter but is also one of the streakiest players in the nation. Teammates Jakarr Sampson (12.7 points, 6.8 boards), Phil Greene IV (9.3 points), Orlando Sanchez (7.3 points), and freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan (6.4 points) have all proven to be capable scorers when Harrison goes in a shooting funk—much to the delight of Lavin. “I love our depth, love our balance, love our makeup, love everything about this group,” Lavin says. “We have a lot of work to do like most teams in the country do. Most coaches want another month to get their teams ready for league play but we don’t have that luxury. I see a team that’s growing, that’s maturing, that has areas to improve upon but has real strengths.”
Defensively, the Red Storm have been active and have used their length, athleticism and shot-blocking ability to hold opponents to 39.3 percent shooting, 38th best in the nation. Though the Storm lack a true big man, the team leads the country in blocks with 9.6 per game thanks to 6-9 center’s Chris Obekpa’s 4.4 swats per contest. The Nigerian native is second in the country in blocks despite playing 22.1 minutes per game, using his 7-5 wingspan and tremendous timing ability to not only block shots but alter nearly every shot that is taken at the rim. Obekpa blocks an absurd one-fifth of opponents shots whenever he is on the floor, which is tops in the country, but he’s a liability on the offensive end. He was a bit exposed against Syracuse, as the Orange got physical with the sophomore and neutralized his skill. Since the loss to ‘Cuse, Obekpa has averaged just 15.6 minutes per game and looked disinterested in a 12-minute, zero block effort against Columbia on Saturday. On the wing, Sir’Dominic Pointer is relentless and channels Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with his effort and ability to swallow up opposing scorers. Pointer, a 6-5 junior from Detroit, is averaging 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per game, giving the Red Storm a little bit of everything on the defensive end much like MKG did during his lone season at Kentucky.
The issues with this St. John’s team are the same problems that have plagued the program since Lavin took over. Simply put, the Johnnies are a poor shooting team and struggle with size on the inside. At 6-5 with long arms, former five-star recruit and freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan is developing and getting better at attacking the rim each game and may help the rest of the offense click as he continues to get comfortable on the college level. Without an offensive big man threat, though, the Johnnies will continue to struggle at the rim on both ends of the floor. Against Columbia, the biggest group height-wise the team has played this season, the lack of size inside really hurt the Johnnies and Columbia was able to play inside-out and hang around until the very end.
Despite a roster that boasts a talented group of slashers and finishers, St. John’s relies on mid-range jumpers and 3-pointers to get points. D’Angelo Harrison broke the St. John’s career record for 3-pointers made earlier this season, but he is not a reliable threat from the break as he has shot just 35.4 percent. Harvard transfer Max Hooper was supposed to be the answer for the Storm from three but he is not fast or strong enough to get open coming off screens and has been a disappointment thus far. As a team, St. John’s shoots 33.3 percent from beyond the arc, good enough for 204th in the nation. The Johnnies will surely see a lot of zone looks once Big East play starts and must do a better job of attacking instead of settling for jumpers.
Talent-wise, St. John’s is as good as any team in the conference and Lavin is rightfully excited for his team’s immediate future despite its flaws: “I’ve said all along, I think by February, we’ll really hit our stride. We have a tough stretch here in January but by mid-February I think this could be a dangerous team and maybe surprise some of those teams picked in the top half of the league. As you can see, we’re a work in progress.”
Since media day, Lavin has constantly mentioned February as a point in the season that he and the rest of the team are looking forward to. Lavin is a smart guy and as a former media personality who has worked on both sides of the fence in big markets himself, is it possible that the persistent mentions of February are anticipatory remarks in case the Johnnies struggle early in conference play and Lavin has to double back? The New York media is particularly impatient and Lavin could be coaching for his job this season now that all the pieces are in play and anything less than an NCAA Tournament berth would be considered a failure. Regardless, St. John’s will be a fun watch during conference play and the quest for the Big East crown begins New Year’s Eve in a noon game against Xavier in Cincy before taking on Georgetown in D.C. on Saturday.