If there was one cautionary note about St. John’s season-opening 77-74 win over Detroit Tuesday afternoon at Carnesecca Arena, it was that the rotation looked suspiciously like last season’s undermanned edition. Coach Steve Lavin used only seven players, one more than the six scholarship players who battled the numbers game during a 13-19 slog a year ago.
The returnees included leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison and Phil Greene in the backcourt, dramatically improved Amir Garrett at small forward and Sir’Dominic Pointer coming off the bench. They were joined by three freshmen, forwards Christian Jones and JaKarr Sampson and center Chris Obekpa. After what Lavin described as “uneven” play in the first half when everyone went their own way, they got organized in the second half as Obekpa’s shot-blocking ignited the transition game and fueled Harrison’s scoring.
Lavin was pleased with an effort in which his players showed the same grit as a year ago, and he added, “The biggest thing was the poise we showed down the stretch.”
At the same time, he made it clear this young team is very much a work in progress. Point guard Jamal Branch (pictured playing against St. John's last season), who transferred from Texas A&M, will become eligible after the first semester ends, much as Garrett did a year ago. Forward God’sgift Achiuwa likely will redshirt this season and rejoin the playing ranks next year as a senior when the Red Storm will have experience to go with all the talent.
At the moment, Lavin still is waiting on the NCAA to determine if two junior college transfers, forward Orlando Sanchez and swing man Marco-Antoine Bourgault, are eligible. Although Lavin originally said freshman guard Felix Balamou would redshirt, he now has decided to play Balamou, who came with Obekpa from Our Savior New American high school in Coram. Balamou didn’t play against Detroit, but Lavin said he expects to play him during the three games the Red Storm has in the Charleston Calssic starting Thursday and ending Sunday.
“We’re waiting on Marco and Orlando,” Lavin said. “We’re looking at a rotation of nine to 10 players depending on who’s available.”
So, the promising start the Red Storm made against Detroit has a chance to blossom into something much better by the time Big East play rolls around.