The goal over the past two seasons for St. John's undermanned basketball team was more about survival than actually competing for an NCAA Tournament berth. But coach Steve Lavin finally has replenished the store of talent, and no one appreciates that more than God'sgift Achiuwa -- one of Lavin's Original Six recruits who completed the 2011-12 season.
As a junior college transfer, Achiuwa was the old man among the six scholarship players who survived that 13-19 season. Lavin added more talent last season, but Achiuwa and the coach agreed he would be better off redshirting and then returning when the Red Storm had an opportunity to be truly competitive this season.
When the Storm opens against 20th-ranked Wisconsin on Friday night at The Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D., Achiuwa will be back in a supporting role for a frontcourt that includes the likes of 6-9 Chris Obekpa, the leading shot-blocker in the nation last season; 6-8 JaKarr Sampson, the Big East rookie of the year, and 6-9 Orlando Sanchez, a 24-year-old junior college transfer.
Reflecting on last season's team, which went 17-16 and reached the second round of the NIT, Achiuwa said, "It was really tough to have your teammates out there fighting and you can't help them. I'm really happy to be able to assist them now."
Achiuwa explained he decided to redshirt so he could concentrate on his studies and improve a game that was rough around the edges.
"The main reason is I wanted to graduate and get my masters also," Achiuwa said. "I got my undergraduate degree the fall of last year in administrative studies. Now, I'm getting my masters in international communications. I know it's going to open up opportunities for me."
As a junior two years ago, Achiuwa averaged 9.4 points and 5.8 rebounds and shot an impressive 53.4 percent from the field. But he was undersized against some of the top teams in the Big East and often saw his shot blocked when zone defenses collapsed on him. It was an eye-opener for a player with only two years of junior college experience after coming to America as a raw project from Nigeria.
"I got a different view of basketball," Achiuwa said of his year off. "I've always been that player that is always on the court, but last year, I was on the sideline and I could see basketball from a different angle. I could see what coaches see. Now, it's easier to shape my game from a player's perspective. I have an overview of basketball."
Looking back on that first season, when two scholarship players quit, Achiuwa said, "I felt we were really young. Now, we're more mature, and together, we can fight and win a lot of big games. It's fun.
"Now, you have a lot of options when it comes to playing. Every position has three guys. It's a good thing, and it's an opportunity to do something special as coach always says."
Along with Achiuwa, three other members of Lavin's Original Six recruiting class return, including D'Angelo Harrison, Phil Greene and Sir'Dominic Pointer. Harrison recently identified Achiuwa as one of the team leaders and gushed about how well he has played in practice.
"Gift has been unbelievable," Harrison said. "The other day, he had 17 points and 20 rebounds."
Rebounding is an emphasis for Achiuwa because the Red Storm has been weak in that area the past two seasons. "That's something I really struggled with [two years ago]," Achiuwa said. "It's just a change of mind-set. I don't worry about the competition, whether it's bigger guys. I'm going to go out and do what I know I can do."
The journey begins with a tough game against Wisconsin, but Achiuwa is confident St. John's can compete on equal footing.
"I'm really happy to have this kind of team, where they're all talented and everyone is healthy," Achiuwa said. "I'm really looking forward to the year. I'm excited."