Maturity and depth could make St. John's a surprise team this season
For the past two seasons, St. John's was everybody's little brother in the Big East -- combative and competitive but too small and too young to hang with the big boys. That changes this season.
D'Angelo Harrison returns from his six-game suspension at the end of last season and joins conference rookie of the year JaKarr Sampson to lead a seasoned nucleus that has added 6-9 transfer forward Orlando Sanchez, outside shooter Max Hooper and, most significantly, highly recruited freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan.
Suddenly, the Red Storm has a deep and talented roster, a luxury for coach Steve Lavin, who has been rebuilding since losing 10 seniors from his initial NCAA Tournament team.
"You can see the maturity, not only physically but in the bearing of the upperclassmen," Lavin said. "It's fun to even be able to say that word after the last couple seasons.
"Now we're three-deep at every position. We haven't had that in my tenure. We have the firepower to be on a more equal footing to the teams we're going to face."
The major question is how Lavin will divide the minutes. A frontcourt that featured Sampson, NCAA shot-blocking leader Chris Obekpa and the all-around talents of Sir'Dominic Pointer last season now adds Sanchez and welcomes back 6-8 senior God'sgift Achiuwa after a redshirt year.
Harrison, Phil Greene and Jamal Branch rotated in the backcourt, but Jordan and Hooper, who also plays small forward, are in the mix along with returning guards Marco-Antoine Bourgault and Felix Balamou and forward Christian Jones.
"They know we have depth, and that's the strength of this team," Lavin said. "And they went through the other extreme. They've seen the alternative, and they know it's ugly because no one likes to lose. Now we can try and wear people out with our pressure and our depth. We'll utilize everything in our toolbox."
The shiny new tool at point guard might have the most impact, but Jordan first must negotiate the adjustment from high school phenom to Big East basketball. A European tour last summer helped, but there are bound to be bumps in the road during non-conference play that begins with a tough one against Wisconsin Friday night in Sioux Falls, S.D.
"In my career, he's one of the more special talents to come in as a freshman," Lavin said of the 6-4 Jordan. "He's so disruptive defensively. He gets up and under people, long-limbed, close on the ball. He's really, really special. There's no frills in his game. He's all business in practice and games. He's all about winning, already taking leadership."
When it comes to leadership, the return of a more mature Harrison, who was suspended for behavioral reasons, is a major bonus. He led the Red Storm in scoring with 17.8 points per game, but some wondered if his SJU career might be over.
Harrison spent the summer at home in Houston working with former NBA star John Lucas to develop a more positive outlook.
"Being with John Lucas for almost two months definitely helped. Basically under his wing, doing what he says, going to anger management classes," Harrison said. "I feel different each and every day since then. I'm in a better place . . . Officials' calls, everything doesn't affect me like it used to. Everything is not personal."
Most preseason predictions peg the Red Storm in the middle of the 10-team Big East pack, but with Harrison back in the fold, St. John's has a chance to be a surprise team on the national scene.
"I don't blame them," Harrison said of the forecasts. "We haven't won. When the coaches have a [media] story about us, it usually says, 'They have the most talent, but we've got to see if they can put it together.' Those are the lines they say, right? The coaches will [post] it in the locker room. Everybody will touch it before we head out to practice. It's serious. It's a good angry."