Aaliyah Lewis pretty much knew what her future held long before St. John’s put up its Big East Tournament championship banner, before she ever even donned the red and white.
From the time she was playing basketball at Brooklyn’s Bishop Ford High School, the Red Storm was already her team. She would make the trek to the Queens campus and be taken by their up-tempo style, their swagger, and by Nadirah McKenith — the point guard who would end up being drafted by the Washington Mystics.
“I just knew I was coming here,” she said. And now “I’m ready to take that role [of leader]. I’m ready. It’s my senior year. I have a lot of younger players and everything and I’m willing to lead them to success.”
But here’s the rub — she’ll have to do it while defending a conference title, and losing two of St. John’s top players. The point guard might have known it in high school, but now it’s officially official: The Red Storm is her team.
“She was really the most important kid on the floor,” coach Joe Tartamella said — high praise, considering St. John’s graduated Danaejah Grant (Big East scoring champion) and Aliyyah Handford (Big East Tournament most outstanding player). The Red Storm has six new players — four freshman and two transfers.
“We could not lose (Lewis), and Aliyyah and D knew that too,” he said. “They all know that they look to her for guidance, they look to her for leadership and I look to her for poise and her being able to effectively distribute the ball along with being able to score and execute our game-plan. I’m amazed by her day in and day out.”
Despite earning their first conference tournament championship since 1988, the Red Storm was ranked sixth in the coach’s preseason poll. And certainly, that assessment is “an indicator” of all they’ve lost, Tartamella said.
“That’s all we look at it as,” he said. “Logically, when you lose two players of the caliber that we have, people can look at it as maybe you’ll have a dropoff. For us, we have standards we keep each and every year . . . I don’t really put a lot of stock into it.”
And what they do have is Lewis — a player Tartamella called possibly the most underrated point guard in the country — forward Imani Littleton, and Jade Walker, the 6-1 forward who he expects to have a big year. Lewis started all 33 games last year, averaged 7.9 points and 3.9 assists and scored a game-high 14 in the Big East championship against Creighton.
The Red Storm also have a deep bench, the ability to wear opponents down and one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the Big East — meaning that if they can produce, their RPI would get the boost it needs to propel them toward the top.
“Are we ever going to be able to fill those exactly as Aliyah and D were? You know, not the way that they did it,” he said. “We’re going to find a way. We’re going to have to play differently.”
St. John’s women’s schedule
Nov. 13 at William & Mary, 2 p.m.
Nov. 17 Duquesne, 7 p.m.
Nov. 20 Miami, 7 p.m.
Nov. 25 Virginia (at South Point Arena), 6:30 p.m.
Nov. 26 Arizona State (at South Point Arena), 4 p.m.
Nov. 30 Albany, 7 p.m.
Dec. 3 Lafayette, 2 p.m.
Dec. 7 Rutgers, 7 p.m.
Dec. 13 at Fordham, 7 p.m.
Dec. 17 Wagner, 2 p.m.
Dec. 21 James Madison, 11 a.m.
Dec. 30 at Seton Hall, 7 p.m.
Jan. 2 at Xavier, 7 p.m.
Jan. 5 at Butler, 7 p.m.
Jan. 8 Marquette, 2 p.m.
Jan. 10 DePaul, 7 p.m.
Jan. 13 at Georgetown, 7 p.m.
Jan. 15 at Villanova, 1 p.m.
Jan. 20 Creighton, 7 p.m.
Jan. 22 Providence, 2 p.m.
Jan. 27 Butler, 7 p.m.
Jan. 29 Xavier (at MSG), 3 p.m.
Feb. 3 at DePaul, 8 p.m.
Feb. 5 at Marquette, 2 p.m.
Feb. 10 Villanova, 8 p.m.
Feb. 12 Georgetown, 2 p.m.
Feb. 17 at Providence, 7 p.m.
Feb. 19 at Creighton, 6:30 p.m.
Feb. 26 Seton Hall, 2 p.m.