Strong Heart

The St. John’s-Villanova game this past Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden was brought to the Johnnies’ faithful by the color red.

With three St. John’s losses in a row, the word bleeding may come to mind. But this Red Storm team put their own and different imprint on the meaning of the color red, its school’s color. Heart. Their hearts will provide Red Storm fans with meaning and hope this winter.

There were 8,565 fans at the Garden who braved the cold weather and late hour during the workweek. It was a St. John’s crowd that came to support their team against its toughest opponent to date, the No. 8-ranked Villanova Wildcats. Some have predicted this very strong 13-1 Villanova team will make the Final Four.

Red Storm fans knew it was going to be a very meaningful game as the Johnnies were off to its best start after 14 games in 15 years, but coming off two consecutive losses in its first two conference games against Seton Hall and Butler.

A Red Storm win would validate its fans’ feeling this was a true NCAA Tournament-worthy team. The Red Storm is the best basketball team in New York City. Check that. The best men’s team, as the St. John’s women’s team at 12-2 is the best women’s team.

New York City basketball fans are hungry for a winning St. John’s team to get back to the big dance after a three-year absence and are looking forward to a fun and exciting next three months.

Leading up to the game, senior guard Phil Greene IV called it the “biggest game of my career.”

The Red Storm fell to the Wildcats 90-72. St. John’s fans might have gone home disappointed, but the team showed its true color—it’s got heart, and that heart should help the fans keep the faith. The game was closer than the final score indicates.

The Red Storm has shown it can play with almost anybody beating Minnesota the defending NIT champions, and Syracuse, and giving a top-10 ranked team, Gonzaga, a run for its money. St. John’s was ranked No. 24 in the country going into the Nova game with a strength of schedule rank of 20.


The game was fairly even with 11 minutes left in the game, and St. John’s was still within striking distance of seven points with about seven minutes left. But a twisted ankle for junior center Chris Obekpa and foul trouble for him and Sir’Dominic Pointer slowed the Johnnies down and allowed Villanova to pull away. D’Angelo Harrison banged up his knee at the end of the first half and sported a welt on his lip at the end of the game, but still played well the whole game.

There is terrific talent among the five starters and first sub off the bench. Three seniors, guards Harrison and Greene, and guard/forward Pointer, and two juniors center Obekpa and guard Jamal Branch start. Rysheed Jordan, a sophomore, comes off the bench now after having started a number of games, as the sixth man.

The talent, and then some, has been there the previous two seasons. Those teams had winning records and made the NIT. But this year’s team, currently lacking a deep bench, brings a chemistry and camaraderie among themselves that might be stronger than in the past, and if so, perhaps because of the over-abundance of talent in the past.

Coach Steve Lavin went deep in his bench last season. Last season’s team had seven players who averaged over 20 minutes playing time, one averaged almost 15 minutes, and three averaged nine minutes a game. But last year, a core rotation with predictable and consistent substitutions never seemed to really take hold. This year, a core rotation has taken hold.

The short six-man rotation used by Lavin means these six players don’t have to worry about playing time. They are on the court longer with each other and have grown accustomed to playing with each other. Four talented guards get to play at the same time and have meshed with each other.

I would not be surprised if the chemistry and camaraderie carries off the court. This was Greene, when discussing Jordan’s leave of absence and subsequent return, as reported by the New York Times. “We’re a family,” Greene said. “Families stick together through tough times. We have each other’s back and it’s going to stay like that.”

In the half court offense, the Red Storm have been spreading the court, giving the guards room to drive to the hoop and pull up for jumpers, or dish off underneath. Multiple players are touching the ball on offense sets. All the guards are quick and fast, can dribble very well, push the ball up court, and fly up the court. Most of them can quickly weave and change direction on their dribble or just quickly blow past their defenders.

Pointer may be one of the most underrated Johnnie player in a long time and has given new meaning to the term “swingman.” At 6-6, he can play all positions on the court. He leads the team in steals and is second in rebounds.

Pointer is physical and strong enough to guard the post, and quick enough to guard a point guard if Coach Lavin wants to disrupt an opponent’s ability to run its offense. When guarding a ball handler bringing the ball up court, his very fundamentally sound low defensive stance combined with his strength, size, and quickness create turnovers. He gets down the court fast and can soar.

Obekpa has been Bill Russell incarnate with his shot blocking, and is second in the nation in that category. His arms seem to have skyscraper reach. He leads the team in rebounding.

Harrison leads the Red Storm in scoring this year at 20.3 ppg, and was their leading scorer on a per game basis his previous three years. He received the Haggerty Award last season as the best New York Metropolitan area basketball player. He plays unselfishly, patiently and seamlessly within the team construct. He could probably easily take another five shots a game without appearing to be forcing things. He’s a graceful shooter who can also take it to the hoop.

The 6-4 Harrison is helping to shoulder the rebounding burden averaging six a game. Part of that may be because he is closer to the basket when he is in the back of the zone defense.

Greene, who could start for most college teams as a prototypical point guard, has taken on the responsibility of trying to score more this year and is second in shots taken. He shares ball-handling duties with Branch and Jordan.

With over 14 minutes left in the game against Villanova, Greene’s lob pass, on the run as he sped down court after grabbing a rebound, to Pointer for a dunk, began a beautiful play that excited the crowd as the Red Storm regained the lead 48-47.

Branch is coming into his own, making plays off the dribble quickly with the pass or drive. He leads the team in assists to turnover ratio.

Jordan is the second leading scorer on the team at 14 ppg and has been touted as having NBA potential.

The Johnnies can guard man-to-man. But given the short rotation, staying out of foul trouble is the biggest challenge. To try to stay out of foul trouble, particularly for Pointer and Obekpa, the Johnnies are switching between a man-to-man defense and a 2-3 or 3-2 match up zone. Up until the Villanova game, the defense was only allowing an average of 61 points a game.

The last 13-and-a-half minutes of the Minnesota game earlier in the season, showed that this St. John’s team could be a special. During that stretch, the Johnnies played some of the most inspiring and important minutes in a long time.

Down by seven at the time, 49-42, the stretch started with a foul on a Minnesota player who then got hit with a technical resulting in three consecutive foul shots made by the Johnnies. The miss of the fourth foul shot was dunked by Pointer. That cut the Minnesota lead to two. A minute later Pointer stole a pass in the backcourt and skied to the hoop for a dunk over the defender exciting the crowd. That Pointer dunk is now part of the pre-game highlight video.

Less than a minute later Pointer blocked a shot at the rim. With two and a half minutes left in the game and St. John’s up by two, 61-59, Harrison made a deep three-point shot with an assist from Jordan after Harrison got an offensive rebound. Harrison got fouled on the shot and hit the foul shot for a four-point play, leading to the 70-61 win.

Despite losing to Villanova, the team showed a lot of heart both on and off the court. It’s something they may never forget and may serve them well beyond their days at St. John’s.

Villanova is big, strong, eight-men deep, experienced, and fast enough. The scoring is balanced and the minutes are spread.

Going into the game Villanova’s leading scorer was senior guard Darrun Hilliard with an averages of 12.4 ppg. Four other players had an average of at least 10 ppg and two others average close to eight.

Forwards JayVaughn Pinkston, Daniel Ochefu and Kris Jenkins go 6-7/235, 6-11/245, and 6-6/240, respectively. Guards Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard, Dylan Ennis, Josh Hart, and Phil Booth go 6-3/195, 6-6/215/, 6-2/192/, 6-5/202 and 6-3/185, respectively. Obekpa looked half the width of Ochefu.

The Johnnies did not back down an inch from a Villanova team that can be physical. With a few lead changes in the first half, the Johnnies, relying on Harrison and Greene for scoring, took a slight lead, 35-34, at the end of the first half.

Villanova collected five more offensive rebounds than the Red Storm in the first half. But Obekpa had three blocked shots and Pointer two. Pointer and Obekpa both had two fouls in the first half. Pointer got his second foul with 12 minutes remaining and played only 11 minutes in the first half.

The Red Storm defense kept the Wildcats from scoring much inside during the first half. Pinkston and Ochefu rarely were on the court at the same time, which might have helped. But Villanova showed they could hit the outside shot.

Obekpa quickly got his third foul within the second minute of the second half. He came out of the game and went back in two minutes later. The game remained very close and was tied 52-52 with a little over 12 minutes left when Obekpa turned an ankle and left the game. He came back a minute and a half later only to pick up his fourth foul within less than another minute and he left the game limping and the Red Storm down 61-54.

St. John’s closed to within five with a little over eight minutes to go, but Pointer picked up his fourth foul with 8:10 left on the clock and fouled out less than 30 seconds later. He was replaced by Obekpa who was hampered with four fouls and a twisted ankle. Obekpa exited for good with six minutes left and the team down 72-61. Villanova proceeded to pull further away.

The biggest heart shown by the Red Storm may have been on display before the game.

Sixth man Jordan had taken an indefinite leave of absence from the basketball team last week after his grandmother passed away.

With his grandmother’s funeral still ahead of him two days after the Villanova game, Jordan somehow mustered the ability to get back to the team and play in this game. His teammates needed him. And he probably needed them just as much in his grief.

Still, it took a big, big heart to come back and play. A person has a right to grieve the loss of a loved one.

As the Johnnies took the floor for the game, he led the layup line from the right side and gave a big smile. You saw that smile again in the team huddle before tip-off. His team and the court brought him some comfort.

Don’t look in the box score for the significance of his game contributions. You won’t find it there. Sometimes just showing up and being counted really matters. And he provided more than that.

His ability to defend and allow the offense to still flow despite not scoring much was big, as Coach Lavin could provide a blow to the others and protect Pointer in the first half from picking up his third foul. The Johnnies were able to show themselves and their fans that they could play with the best.

Now, in the early part the second half of the season, can the Red Storm start building on to it’s first six by lengthening its bench by two more players without disrupting its talent and chemistry?

More insurance is needed against foul trouble, injury, fatigue, and other unforeseen events. It would also allow the Johnnies to play more man-to-man defense.

During the post-game press conference, Lavin seemed less inclined to extend the bench based on performances in practice, but hinted if he does, it might be the 6-5 freshman Myles Stewart whose outside shooting can keep the floor opened up. Yet, it is something he knows he has to think through and evaluate. There is some time to do so. St. John’s next game, against Providence, is on January 14.

The Johnnies were out-rebounded 41 to 21 by the Wildcats. Offensive rebounds went 14 to 5 in Nova’s favor. And except for just a very brief time, Pinkston and Ochefu were not on the floor at the same time. Before the game, the Johnnies had averaged 38 boards a game, but had 32 and 34 in their previous two games.

Nova had 42 points in the paint, 26 in the second half. They also went 7-12 beyond the three-point line in the second half.

After the 6-10 Obekpa, the next tallest Johnnie is Pointer at 6-6.

There are six teams in the Big East with winning percentages over .700. Nine out of the 10 teams have at least nine wins. Does not look like there will be many easy games for any of the teams in the conference, except for maybe Villanova.

Permit me one new reverie. Had they not turned pro early, this team would also have Moe Harkless as a senior forward and JaKarr Sampson as a junior forward. With apologies to Dick Van Patton, this Eight is Enough show would have been awesome.

And one old “what if”? A shout out to back in the day.

Forty-two years ago, in the 1972-73 season, St. John’s start forward Mel Davis, a great PSAL ballplayer from Brooklyn’s Boys High and later to be drafted by the Knicks in the first round and play four years with them, did not play due to a knee injury suffered at the end of the previous season. Had he been healthy at the end of the previous season, he would have entered the NBA Draft early as a junior based on hardship and still not have played that season at St. John’s.

In Davis’ two seasons on the varsity (freshmen could not play on the varsity when he entered college) he averaged 21 points a game year, 16 rebounds per game as a sophomore, and 15 as a junior.

That 1972-73 St. John’s team lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Penn by a point. With Davis, that team may have ranked among the best in St. John’s history. Some of the players on that team: Billy Schaeffer, Ed Searcy, Kevin Cluess, Tony Prince, Mel Utley, Larry Jenkins and Frank Alagia.

What matters though is not what if. It’s what actually happens that matters. This Red Storm team showed its big heart against Villanova. Chances are we will see more of that heart this season.