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Chris Obekpa’s role evolving

DePaul's Donnavan Kirk pressures St. John's Chris Obekpa

DePaul's Donnavan Kirk pressures St. John's Chris Obekpa during the second half. (Jan. 19, 2013) (Credit: AP)

St. John’s center Chris Obekpa remains the shot-blocking leader in NCAA Division I with an average of 4.83 per game, but it might be hard to maintain that pace now that he has moved from the starting lineup to a more limited role off the bench. The Red Storm (11-7, 3-3 Big East) has won two straight since coach Steve Lavin chose to go with a three-guard lineup with Jamal Branch starting in place of Obekpa, and will stick with the new lineup Wednesday night at Rutgers (12-5, 3-3).

Lavin originally made the move against Notre Dame, he said on Tuesday, because the Irish had four strong three-point shooters and a smaller lineup made it easier for St. John’s to get out to shut them down on the perimeter. Obekpa played only 10 minutes in that game, recording two blocks and three rebounds.

But Lavin used Obekpa for 24 minutes in Saturday’s win at DePaul and had him on the floor down the stretch when the Red Storm succeeded in fighting off a comeback by the Blue Demons. Obekpa finished with six points, six rebounds and three blocked shots in that game.

“Obekpa was good down the stretch,” Lavin said. “He hit a nice jumper from the baseline; then, he had the power dunk where he got the defender up in the air with the shot fake and went to the hole and flushed it, and then, he got a nice offensive rebound and putback. And he did his thing with the shot-blocking and rebounding.

“He’s going to always get starter’s minutes, but this smaller [starting] group has given us a little spark. It creates matchup problems for opponents. But Obekpa is someone that’s going to anchor our defense for this season and for as long as he’s here.”