Rysheed Jordan speaks.
St. John's freshman point guard has been ruled off-limits to the media this season by coach Steve Lavin, but lately, Jordan has audited interview sessions, standing quietly in the door and listening. So when JaKarr Sampson and Phil Greene were asked on Friday if they knew how many relatives and friends Jordan was expecting for Saturday's game against No. 9 Villanova (23-3, 11-2 Big East) at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Jordan volunteered the one-word answer.
"Forty," said the North Philly native.
Of course, all the players chipped in their allotment of tickets to help Jordan meet the demand. Taking care of his family alone is a tall order. Jordan has six younger siblings plus his mother and grandparents. The question is whether he can live up to their expectations on the court while facing the pressure of playing before a hometown crowd.
"We don't worry about him," Sampson said. "He's poised. He's big in crunch time."
Added Greene: "He's going to be amped up and ready to play . . . He can't wait. It's been a long time since he played in his hometown."
Jordan's recent emergence, including a career-high 24-point game in a win over Georgetown last Sunday, has been a major reason St. John's (18-9, 8-6) has climbed into the NCAA Tournament picture with nine wins in its past 10 games.
Just as he worried about keeping Jordan focused early in the season when he was dealing with personal problems at home while making the transition to college, Lavin cautioned Jordan not to overextend himself before facing the Wildcats.
"I talked to him about returning home to Philadelphia and told him to get as many things out of the way as possible so that, on Friday and Saturday, he can focus solely on basketball," Lavin said. "He was good in practice. He was sharp, and he's looking forward to the game.
"He's going to need to take a couple of deep breaths and lose himself into the flow of the game. There's going to be adrenaline, and that's healthy."
Lavin said he can't prove the media ban had a cause-and-effect relationship on Jordan's steady progress, but the coach again explained he believed it was necessary.
Jordan's mother and grandfather had serious health issues early in the season. His best friend was murdered just before the school year began. And Jordan experienced separation anxiety because he played such an important role in caring for his siblings, who have been frequent visitors to Red Storm practices.
"He had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and that burden was affecting the way he could perform," Lavin said. "We had seen him in practice and knew how he could perform."
Now Jordan is bringing that to the court regularly. In the past five games, he's averaging 12.8 points and shooting 47.9 percent (23-for-48). His improved shooting percentage means defenses must cover him, creating more opportunities for teammates that he has been quick to recognize.
"It's his poise," Lavin said. "His temperament is even keel. The point guard is the equivalent of the quarterback, and when you have a cool customer like Rysheed, it goes a long way in terms of being successful."
Lavin said 6-9 center Chris Obekpa, who suffered a sprained right ankle in Tuesday's win over Butler, might play against Villanova. He was cleared to practice but was held out as a precaution and will test the ankle in pregame warmups.
If Obekpa can't play, Lavin will go with a smaller lineup against the Wildcats, who have lost twice to No. 18 Creighton and once to No. 1 Syracuse. Jordan and his teammates understand the impact an upset of Villanova would have on their NCAA prospects.
"We know this is a big-time game," Sampson said. "It could seal the deal for us. We have to go in with our minds right and play with energy from the jump."