Say what you will about the significance of a 91-67 victory over the likes of lowly Providence, but after all the turmoil an undermanned St. John's team has faced this season, it was one heck of a Big East debut for the six newcomers who joined veteran Malik Stith in the rotation. Of course, the 32-point performance of Moe Harkless already is in the record books as the most points scored by a freshman making his Big East debut, topping the previous mark of 30 shared by Georgetown's Allen Iverson and Notre Dame's Troy Murphy.
But Harkless knew his points and the impressive total of 91 put up by the Red Storm (7-5, 1-0 Big East) all were the result of playing terrific defense. Yes, the Friars (11-3, 0-1) still shot 48.3 percent from the field, but they committed 20 turnovers, contributing to St. John's big advantages in points off turnovers (34-11) and fast-break points (26-10). Whenever Providence tried to press, it just opened the floor up for the Red Storm to score in transition.
"That was the gameplan," Harkless said. "Keep them out of the paint, get in the passing lanes and rebound. Our goal is to play as one on defense, and we did that. If we let the offense come to us and no one is selfish, we'll be fine."
No one epitomized that philosophy better than Harkless. D'Angelo Harrison scored 18 of his 25 points in the first half. Harkless had just nine points at halftime, but he also had nine of his 13 rebounds, three of his four assists and all of his four steals and two blocks. In the second half, he kind of switched roles with Harrison, letting the offense come to him.
Asked if he looked to score more in the second half, Harkless said, "No, I was just playing. Get open shots, and I take them."
Harrison had a big hand in setting Harkless up, feeding him twice in a row on fast-break dunks and also taking charges and forcing turnovers and generally sacrificing his body on defense. "I've always taken charges," Harrison said. "I was the biggest guy on our team in high school."
If they didn't understand before why assistant coach Mike Dunlap, who is running the team while Steve Lavin recuperates from prostate cancer surgery, works them so hard at the defensive end, the Red Storm's young players do now. "Defense really made us play better offense," Harrison said. "We had a lot of dunks."
Harrison was obviously pleased for Harkless when he heard his teammate set the scoring record for a freshman debut. Asked what separates Harkless, the 6-3 Harrison said, "He's 6-8, and he can do everything I do -- shooting, passing, athleticism, playing defense, rebounding. He's a pro for sure."
It won't be as easy as the Red Storm made it look when St. John travels to Hartford on New Year's Eve to face No. 10 Connecticut in a noon game. The Huskies are huge and far more talented than the Friars. But this was a good starting point in Big East play for a young team that struggled early but has shown it has the talent to execute once it learns how to play.