Last season ended in disappointment, disarray and dysfunction for St. John's basketball program. The Red Storm was embarrassed at home by Robert Morris in an NIT first-round loss witnessed by barely 1,000 spectators, sophomore JaKarr Sampson declared for the NBA draft and 6-10 Chris Obekpa announced his decision to transfer.
There was no salvaging the postseason and Sampson went undrafted before catching on with the 76ers for training camp, but after a few weeks, Obekpa made a U-turn to rejoin coach Steve Lavin's program. No one is happier than Lavin, who said during Friday's media day that "Chris Obekpa had the best offseason of any player in my coaching career. Chris is a player who's had a breakthrough. I expect him to average a double-double this year."
Obekpa's return is just one reason Lavin sees his program trending upward with what he describes as a "realistic" opportunity to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four seasons.
The senior core of guards D'Angelo Harrison, Phil Greene IV and Jamal Branch and forward Sir'Dominic Pointer returns to provide leadership and scoring.
Sophomore point guard Rysheed Jordan, who still is off-limits to the media because Lavin wants him to focus on academics, is said to be demonstrating more maturity. Harrison said Jordan might be "a $10-million player," implying he's good enough to make the leap to the NBA next spring.
Finally, Lavin addressed the Red Storm's rebounding problems by adding 7-foot freshman Adonis Delarosa, 6-8 junior college transfer Keith Thomas and 6-9 freshman Amar Alibegovic, a "stretch" power forward with shooting range.
"I like our front line," Lavin said.
So does a group of seniors who have been undermanned and overworked their entire careers. "Delarosa and Keith Thomas are more paint-oriented and rebound the ball," Pointer said. "Obekpa's getting up and down the court like a madman. He's the best big man so far. He's going to have a breakout season."
When the Red Storm fell apart last spring, Obekpa was a different kind of madman. Partly because of foul trouble and partly because of Lavin's coaching decision, Obekpa played only three minutes in the Storm's Big East Tournament loss to Providence.
"Leaving was an emotional decision," Obekpa said. "I was mad because we were losing. I was at a point where it wasn't working."
Reminded that the Storm had a 20-13 record, Obekpa said, "We didn't get to the NCAA Tournament. It was losing. Three years in a row, we didn't make it. I was not happy with that."
Now that he's back, Obekpa likes what he sees, especially all the rebounding help. "Last year, we got killed on the boards," he said. "We're matching up good now."
Harrison agreed, saying the goal this season is to have an NCAA bid all but wrapped up by February.