Gene Keady

Steve Lavin, who has now missed consecutive games and 3 games total for St. John’s this year, will be interviewed by WFAN’s Mike Francesa in the 4 O’clock hour today. We are anxiously awaiting what will be Lavin’s most public and in depth remarks about the team an his health since being diagnosed last spring. The timing of the interview comes on the verge of St. John’s trip to Lexington to face Kentucky, which is the team’s biggest spotlight game so far. The interview and the trip to Kentucky will definitely impact on St. John’s recruiting as some recruits are questioning Lavin’s health, and the stability of the conference.

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On a few occasions this season (prior to games vs. Northwestern, Georgetown, ASU, and Duke) we’ve had a warm feeling–positive expectations–about a given game.  Damn us for announcing in the past that we had no idea why.  Frankly, there’s only one real player on the team, one super athletic but raw freshman, lost in the half court for more than a month, and a collection of short role players.  No size at all.  Very under talented.  You know how much we love Steve Lavin and how thoroughly we have professed our love for him since second one of his tenure.  In fact, we had been torching AD Chris Monasch for his sluggish, trumped up pursuit (if you could call it that) of Billy Donovan and Paul Hewitt, but once we caught the slightest whiff of the Lavin to SJU rumors, we promptly cut it out.  It may have taken us 23 games to fully comprehend that Lavin has cooked up the good feeling surrounding the program with tireless recruiting efforts–for both players and coaches–courting and re-establishing the connections to St. John’s royalty like Chris Mullin and Ron Artest, and making a team out of the talent and size poor bunch he inherited from the inept Norm Roberts.

As former Knick big and esteemed commentator Len Elmore pointed out during the broadcast, Lavin might not have gotten all the ingredients in for this Johnnies squad, but he did “bake the cake.”  L-ELM???  We’d see Lavin as more like the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker.  Despite watching UConn recently light up Marquette on the road in the 2nd half, we felt the Lavin positive vibe last night.  Until Lavin chatted with former ESPN colleague Elmore in the tunnel prior to the game, and told the camera that Elmore would probably have a much better time watching that game than Lavin would.

Luckily, such talk was more low key Lavin and false modesty.  From about the 9 minute mark of the first half on, St. John’s destroyed a very good Husky team.  So St. John’s only has 1 offensive player?  If that guy is getting to the rim and looking for his shot, that guy, Dwight Hardy (above), showed Thursday that he’s all you really need.  5-8 from 3 pt. range, and 33 pts total, including 12 in a row on a Hardy to UConn 12-0 run, mixing long range bombing with a nasty ability to get in the paint and convert several conventional 3 point plays.  St. John’s weathered a late first half Husky run, took a small lead into the half, and then went on a 19-3 run spirited by Hardy, who took to heart his marquee matchup with Bronx rival and Big East scoring ace Kemba Walker.

So St. John’s, capping an NCAA record 7th straight game against top 25 teams, railed Connecticut in front of a decent Garden crowd, and are now 7-1 at MSG and 4-3 against teams in the top 25.  Their recent win against Duke was Duke’s worst out of conference loss in 20 years, and though they followed it with a stumble at UCLA in Lavin’s return to Pauley Pavilion, Hardy poured in 32 and the Johnnies had a chance late on the road in a very tough non-conference tilt.  Lavin had to have wanted that one badly, and the team had to have known it.  They brought incredible to focus into the UConn game, and for the 3 game set, couldn’t have gone a better 2 and 1.  St. John’s had an insane 22 rating in the RPI going into last week, and today, they notched a very impressive road win over Big East foe Cincinnati on the road.

They got the win today despite blowing a 52-40 lead late, and they couldn’t buy a field goal in the closing minutes of the game.  They did it with excellent position play and hustle, poise at the line, and confidence.  Hardy had another 18 today and nailed another 4 3 point field goals, but it came down to defense for the Johnnies, who were exploited a bit on both ends on the glass by the Bearcats.  UConn was unable to pull that off the other night when St. John’s, despite the lack of size, killed the Huskies on the glass 43-33.

Defense and hustle were also on display against the Huskies, who St. John’s seemed to run cirlces around.  St. John’s scored the first 27 fast break points of the game, and in the end, notched a 27-2 win in fast break points.  So much so in fact, that many Husky fans have been questioning HOF coach Jim Calhoun’s preparedness with regard to the St. John’s game. 

We were very interested to see how this team would respond today on the road after such an impressive win.  Especially when we heard Lavin’s post game remarks about the St. John’s mindset right now.  When the Johnnies beat Duke, Lavin gave the team 2 hours to celebrate.  No such break was issued Thursday night.  “That was the biggest game of the year.” he would say.  “Now, the next one is.”

This team has grown, and they are a very tough out despite the shortcomings.  All credit to Lavin, b.t.w., for taking a look at these kids and seeing that Dwight Hardy, who Norm Roberts didn’t rate as a starter, as the premiere player on the team.  And again, for hiring the staff that he did.  We’ve said it before and we’ll say it more.  Getting Keady was a master stroke, and what kind of guy would get a guy like Keady to come here at 70 something and do this while living out of a hotel?  Do not under estimate Keady’s influence on this squad.  They play extremely smart ball, and in the Keady fashion, they squeeze every drop out of their talent.  And how about the hiring of Mo Hicks?  Hicks, an NYC amateur basketball power broker, is no doubt part of the reason why high school sophomore phenom Isaiah Lewis (above) of Christ the King, is looking hard at the Johnnies, and who could be the top player in the nation in the class of 2013.  But then again, Lavin didn’t have Hicks yet when he landed Mo Harkless, who many have touted as the best player in NY in the 2011 class.  It helps with these kids that Lavin is always saying the right things.  About opponents, about recruiting, about the mindset of the team, his message to the team, or to legends he wooed and added to this dream staff.  Lavin is always making things happen, whether it’s a big win, celebrity pull, or another recruiting gem, like Chicago standout Phil Greene (below), who committed to St. John’s earlier this month.  Greene is a 6’2/6’3 combo guard who is expected to compete for a starting spot in next year’s backcourt , and who should receive quality minutes at any rate.

As we’ve mentioned, seeing Chris Mullin around the team, whether at Carneseca, MSG, or on the road (St. Mary’s) is also a big boost.  Or established NBA players like Dejuan Blair or Knick great Allan Houston.  And did you hear what Ron Artest said?

“They whupped on UConn.  They whupped on their butts.  And Duke too.”

On Lavin, Artest would say:

“Doing great.  I’m really happy about that.”

You and me both, RA.  And wait ’til next year, when they have a collection of A grade talent, which includes a scoring machine in Nurideen Lindsey at the lead, a top big in Norvel Pelle, and Harkless leading a cast of 8 other prized recruits.  The schedule isn’t falling off any time soon, but we’re looking for our boys to record a few other popping wins–regular season and tournament.

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St. John’s “big man” Justin Burrell.

So St. John’s, after 5 stirring victories in a row, went to South Bend last Saturday.  A vteran Notre Dame team crushed them, content to move the ball quickly and to exploit mismatches, the Irish kept scoring, and never allowed St. John’s to establish their defensive stronghold, and then to get out in transition.  Then this week, in front of a 14,440 Garden faithful–an excellent crowd considering New York City’s inclement weather–things only got tougher for Lavin’s crew.  St. John’s, now having dropped 5 straight to Syracuse, got out well in the game.  Up 17-8 early, St. John’s produced hardly a noteworthy moment from that time forward.  The Orange went on an 11-0 run to tie, and then the Johnnies inability to score in the half court was again glaring.  At 25-18 down, St. John’s canned two straight threes to pull to 25-24.  From there they were outscored 51-35, for a 76-59 loss which was not as close as the scoreboard indicated.  At 25-24, Syracuse ran off 4 straight buckets in what semed like a blink.  At that point it was 33-24, and essentially, the game was over.

The loss made two straight in the Big East for St. John’s, which for the moment, dropped them to 3-2 in conference play, and 10-5 overall.  It seemed no help was on the horizon, with a Garden rematch looming versus Notre Dame looming yesterday afternoon.  But knowing Lavin, we had a good feeling about yesterday’s game, if once again, we couldn’t tell you why.  Probably has a little something to do with the fact that St. John’s has a newly restored element in their midst this year called pride. 

The Johnnies upped their record to 11-5 (4-2 conf) by protecting the home court yesterday in New York.  They did it according to the Lavin/Keady blueprint: stops and run outs.  St. John’s held a 26-19 lead at the half which they parlayed into an impressive 72-54 win over the formerly 11th ranked Irish, who turned up 16th in this week’s latest poll.  The win was the 2nd in 2 weeks over ranked opponents for the Johnnies who are building quite a case for an NCAA bid, now about half way through their season.  St. John’s was led by D.J. Kennedy, who had 14 pts and 8 boards, Dwight Hardy, who had 12 pts on 4-6 shooting, with 4 rebounds and 4 assists to go with it, and Justin Brownlee, who added 11 points and 5 rebounds.  In what was a shocker to us, Malik Boothe, who we have absolutely trashed for his lack of ability, brought 14 pts to the table in 24 minutes.

But we’d like to go back to Syracuse.  Not actually, but for the sake of trashing them in this space.  God, we hate them.  From the way ESPN’s crew fetes them–touting how they feel the Garden is their home away from home–to the way their players run their mouths.

“We just know where we stand with New York and where New York stands with us.  St. John’s is having a great year.  We’re not taking anything away from them…but we’re New York’s team right now.” — Scoop Jardine

They talk because they are worried.  St. John’s is in play on all viable city kids, cutting into Syracuse’s recruiting base considerably.  And Lavin’s California pipeline and pull out in the Golden State can not be matched by Syracuse, who has now watched California pull what looks like two consecutive Mr. Basketball’s from Cali, Dwayne Polee, and next year’s gem, big man Norvel Pelle.  We hear Remi Barry is still beaming about his visit to campus as well.  Wearing ‘NY’s Team’ shirts in the Garden and chirping about it, as well as a tacky guerilla marketing campaign in which they rented out the tops of New York City yellow taxis and installed orange plackards was at once desperate and sad.

Look, what kid in his right mind would want to play for Syracuse over St. John’s?  Who is going to pick the sticks over the city?  Syracuse is so far from everywhere that their sticks have sticks.  There are no basketball players in Syracuse to recruit, so they have to try to snag our kids.  In fact, there’s nothing in Syracuse.  It makes “cultural hubs” like Texas and Indiana seem like Milan.  Syracuse is 5-6 hours outside the city on a good day, but we wouldn’t call it God’s country.  My friend and I traveled their not too long ago to visit a friend, and since I went to college upstate, I had occasion to visit in my younger days as well.  No redeeming elements whatsover. 

In our recent visit, we left Manhattan at midnight, were on the West Side Highway immediately, and were on the Thruway and rolling with in a blink, at 75 MPH, for a good 2 hours.  We felt good about life.  And then we saw a sign that said, “Syracuse: 280 Miles.”  That was the worst sign I have ever read in my life.  It was worse than the drug disclaimers you read when going through customs in Bermuda.  I much prefer the drive to Florida.  It may be 20 something hours, but when you get there, at least you’re in Florida, not Syracuse.

They have a great team again and have put some fine players in the pros of late, like Johnny Flynn and Wes Johnson, who we’d take on the Knicks in a heart beat.  But they’re Syracuse.  I’d rather go to Fordham.  As for St. John’s, they face Louisville Wednesday night in Louisville in Lavin’s first trip there since resurrecting the program.

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St. John’s star Dwight Hardy (above).

As St. John’s opened the season at St.Mary’s in Northern California, alum and New York basketball demigod Chris Mullin looked on.  Sure Mullin is also connected through the Warriors to the Northern California basketball scene, but we thought that it was a good pull for Lavin in his debut.  We’ve watched, and been critical of this current team, while placing every possible faith in new coach Steve Lavin, who has quickly genereated a buzz.  In our critical mind, the losses to Fordham and St. Bonaventures, were ominous signs for the current squad, and made us temper our enthusiasm for the Lavin buzz, because as great as the recruiting has been, a season is going on, and the team right now is the team you have on the floor.

We watched as St. John’s slithered through the Holiday Festival, and went on record as saying we thought they’d take Northwestern, even if we couldn’t tell you why.  We watched as St. John’s scored a miraculous upset at West Virginia over a coach we respect in Bob Huggins, and then followed it up with the nice win at Providence.  But tonight, now that was some shit.  The Garden had a buzz about it.  Lou Carnesecca was seated in his perch in row 4–the Godfather.  Dejauan Blair of the San Antonio Spurs, in town to play the Knicks, was on hand to watch Pittsburgh buddy Dwight Hardy.  And the ever stylish Allan Houston of the New York Knicks front office–a good basketball man, was also there to see New York City’s finest college basketball go down.

Dwight Hardy didn’t disappoint his big name friend in attendance, scoring several clutch baskets down the stretch after St. John’s blew the lead in the final 5 minutes, and for the guy that Lavin called perhaps the best shooter he has ever coached, including UCLA stock such as Trace Murray and Jason Kapono, it was Hardy off the dribble that really killed Georgetown.  Hardy made 5-10 from the field and 10/1o at the line, and broke Georgetown down at will with a lightning first step.  St. John’s received impressive play–standout–from Justin Brownlee, who in addition to scoring 15 pts, added a very well rounded 7 rebounds and 6 assists in 40 minutes, and from the guy who Lavin called his “Bruce Bowen”, and who we had no idea had it in him–Paris Horne.  Horne, in one succession, had an immense defensive play in which he drew a charge, then grabbed an offensive board and in watching, we had to admit that the guy was everywhere.  And it was Brownlee, who, trailing 58-57 crashed the boards on an impressive run to the hoop that Hardy couldn’t finish, and converted the put back to take the lead once and for all. 

Lavin has said things all along that we attributed to him as having to say in order to get the most out of this basketball team.  Like after the upset at West Virginia, he said that the team is coming together and that their best basketball was ahead.  And after bad losses to the Bonnies and Fordham, Lavin said that he could feel the team improving and coming together.  Though we didn’t necessarily buy it, and chalked it up to coach speak, he wasn’t lying.  Lavin is showing himself as not just the king of networking–the guy who has been able to access and accentuate every aspect of St. John’s heritage, NYC, and the Garden as a home court to bring 6 top 70 basketball recruits here in next year’s class–but also as a supremely gifted coach with the talent he was given.  College basketball–the game in its purest form–is simple really when one breaks it down to the game’s common denominator, which is defense.  This team plays defense, and when you are in a 1 point game with a few minutes left, you have a chance, despite the names on the back of the jerseys.  Then there was the deft coaching move of shelfing both of the team’s horrible point guards, Malik Boothe and Malik Stith, who did not see a minute between them last night, instead opting to ride Kennedy, Hardy, and Brownlee for 40 minutes each.  Horne and Kennedy, taking the lion’s share of minutes in the backcourt–two guys who give you scoring (Hardy) and intangibles (both), have seen the Johnnies settle into this admirable identity, and have grown as a team.

With consecutive wins over Davidson, Northwestern, at West Virgina, at Providence, and at home versus #13 Georgetown, the team has already made a case for inclusion into the tournament, which would be its first such appearance in 10 years, if they could squeeze say another 10 wins out of the schedule, which they have navigated to an impressive 10-3 so far and a 3-0 count in the Big East.

We couldn’t be happier with Lavin’s hiring and we’re sharpening our cutlery for the next time, say, a team like Fordham pops up on the schedule.  Tom Pecora?  You catch that game last night, troop?  Even though we didn’t want you, buddy, we hope you’re watching to see how a real coach does it.

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Andrew Nicholson (above) of St. Bonaventure.

Steve Lavin–New York City basketball savior, master recruiter, and fortune teller?  Prior to St. John’s awful 67-66 to a supposedly down Bonnies program at home, St. John’s coach Steve Lavin called dynamic St. Bonaventure big man Andrew Nicholson out of Toronto a “legitimate pro prospect” who was on “many NBA draft boards.”  Then St. John’s gets out to an early 17-4 lead, blows 10 point second half cushion, and the prescient Steve Lavin watches Nicholson drain a 19 footer with 5.2 seconds remaining over Justin Brownlee for the win.

Lavin was upbeat afterward and doggedly refused to address the elephant in the room–that the Jhonnies had suffered a very bad loss.  At home, and in front of a non existent crowd–another sign the always positive Lavin refused to take as an omen.  Lavin insisted that all of the team’s mistakes vs. the Bonnies were correctable, and that is what he told the team.  Last week, an interview with Mike Francesa and special guest, Governor David Paterson–not surprisingly, very well suited to talk radio–Lavin, when asked about attendance issues, refused to declare the program sound.  He said the University has seen a “slight uptick” in attendance, but was fairly resolute about the fact that New York is a smart town and that it will turn out in full force for a winner.

When watching the current squad, even with the vast improvement from last year’s staff to Lavin’s, it’s obvious that St. John’s is no winner yet.  Even with the addition of California’s 2009 Mr. Basketball, Dwayne Polee Jr., foundering of late in our opinion due to the overwhelming lack of talent.  By the way, we have to mention how disappointed we were in St. John’s alum Mike Francesa for his failure to say one word about Polee, St. John’s highest profile recruit in 10 years, throughout the course of the 22 minute interview.

This team may be loaded with seniors, but it is a rag tag crew–an undersized bunch lacking in talent and without a true big man to match up with a big like Nicholson, and without a true playmaker who can push the ball and get it to Polee in the right spots on the floor.  A lot of the time Lavin is using 2 point guards simultaneously (Malik Boothe and Malik Stith) to make for the fact that neither can adequately do the job.  Seeing Boothe and Stith play with Polee is like watching 2 versions of Chris Childs next to a young James Worthy.  It’s painful.

In no way is it Lavin’s fault.  Polee, the only promising player on the team, is only here as a testament to Lavin’s recruiting wizardry.  Speaking of wizards, Lavin’s insistence on up tempo basketball and full court defense–adapted in part from his UCLA days and the influence of the great John Wooden–are the best strategies for covering the warts at the point guard position and for creating opportunities for Polee.  But as Lavin intimated to Francesa and Governor P, this team probably won’t win consistently or big for 2-3 years, likening the progress he will make to Jay Wright’s at Villanova’s, where it took four years to really get deep into an NCAA tournament.  Lavin’s stellar recruiting class in 2011 will probably need at least 1-2 years to develop, despite the best laid plans for the University by the best coaching staff to ever stalk the sideline over on Utopia Parkway.  Don’t be surprised if St. John’s has a really tough time today as well, against Tom Pecora’s Fordham Rams.  Fordham is fresh off an impressive blowout of Manhattan College.

That’s right, America.  You better beat St. John’s before it’s up and rolling.  Even mid to low majors may have a couple years still on St. John’s.  As Lavin said on the radio, quoting special advisor Gene Keady, “Inch by inch it’s a sinch.  Yard by yard it’s hard.”  We know Lavin is set to take the program miles into the future, and that the future will be well worth these growing pains.

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“To be honest, the first time my alarm went off, I wanted to cry.” — St. John’s point guard Malik Boothe

New St. John’s coach Steve Lavin hasn’t just been all business on the recruiting circuit.  With the current squad Lavin has gone immediately to work to stamp out the laziness and laxness pervasive under the last two regimes–arguably the worst in the school’s storied history.  To change that culture, Lavin started early.  Literally.  He changed practice time from the very comfortable time of 4 PM to a military like 6 AM.  As we can see from the above quote by Malik Boothe, there may have been some tears among the 10 returning seniors who have yet to even remotely sniff an NCAA bid.

You know what?  They should’ve been crying all along the way the fans have for the last 12 years.  I still cry every time I see an ugly beard reminiscent of Mike Jarvis.  But Jarvis wouldn’t be qualified to carry the water for this squad, or its A Team of coaches which boasts coaching legend Gene Keady, in all, 3 former NBA assistants (including Keady who had a brief stint with the Toronto Raptors), local legend Maurice Hicks, and Northeast recruiting extroardinaire Tony Chiles.

Keady, running a grueling early practice recently, was said to have lambasted the team for poor floor spacing, and remarked that ‘if a grenade went off, it would kill all 5 guys.’  And we love it.  They are St. John’s, where the best will come.  Not to be coddled, but to win.  To be yelled at when necessary.  The Keady line is our favorite from a coach since this summer’s Hard Knocks when Jets’ special teams coach Mike Westhoff lamented when all the backup linebackers were out injured riding stationary bikes that they might not be much for football, but would make a “hell of a squad for the Tour de France.”

Lavin wasn’t about to play good cop to Keady’s bad cop either.  When discussing the returning players and last year’s team, Lavin said they “tied for 13th in the Big East.  There is no positive spin.”  Lavin, unhappy with the big men on the roster, or lack thereof, has been featuring an unbalanced, guard laden unit along with California’s 2010 Mr. Basketball, Lavin’s only recruit for the 2010-2011 class, Dwayne Polee Jr., who, from what we’re hearing, the university would be lucky if he sticks around for his freshman and sophomore years.  Polee looks set to fill it up.

Another California product, 6’9 forward Norvel Pelle, ranked 71st inthe 20111-2012 class, and 13th at his position by ESPN, would probably balance the court quite nicely for the Johnnies, and we think, would convert a lot of dunks off penetration from Nurideen Lindsey and D’Angelo Harrison next year, and from elite pass first point guard prospect Jevon Thomas, a Queens product–the 2nd Queens product to sign on with Lavin (Maurice Harkless, 2011 class)–who called St. John’s his “dream school”, choosing the Johnnies after attending both St. John’s and Villanova’s midnight madness.  Thomas is the first jewel in Lavin’s 2012-2013 incoming class.

As for Pelle, St. John’s still awaits his decision.  Eagerly.  He is the first big time interior player that the A Team has gotten into the mix for.

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Philadelphia standout point guard prospect Nurideen Lindsey (above).

Lindsey, the former Philly prep star now at Redlands CC in Oklahoma, accepted a scholarship offer from the Red Storm Tuesday. The other finalist for his services was Auburn, though Kentucky, South Florida, Oklahoma State and LSU all were involved too.

“The thing that made St. John’s right for him was the relationship and comfort he has with the coaching staff,” said Redland coach Yaphett King. “They made it clear with their action how much he mattered to them. Every opportunity they could see him, they were there.”

In 2008 the 6-3 Lindsay played at Philadelphia‘s Overbrook High and committed to LaSalle, where current Storm assistant Tony Chiles was on staff at the time. That year he averaged 35.8 points in league play, the sixth highest ever with Chamberlain holding two of the top five spots. Chamberlain also attended Overbrook.

Lindsey, sadly, saw two of his brothers murdered in Philadelphia, which swayed him to leave his hometown for Redlands CC in Oklahoma.  The 6’3 lead guard was one of the best high school scorers in Pennsylvania history, and had originally decided to attend Lasalle.  It was current St. John’s assistant Tony Chiles, then at Lasalle, who was instrumental in signing Lindsey, then and now, successfully re-recruiting one of the nation’s most talented guard prospects to St. John’s. 

St. John’s also secured a commitment from Detroit area small forward and defensive “stopper” Dominick Pointer, who considers himself a lockdown forward.  With the Pointer and Lindsay signings, new St. John’s coach Steve Lavin can boast that the program has gone into 5 high school basketball hotbeds and landed a stud from each: Dwayne Polee Jr (Los Angeles), Maurice Harkless (NYC), D’Angelo Harrison (Houston), Pointer (Detroit), and Lindsay (Phily).  Lavin also received a commitment from Akron, Ohio HS star Jakarr Sampson.

Though we expected St. John’s to make a big splash at point guard, we were thinking more along the lines of a traditional distributor at the lead guard position.  Since St. John’s still has 5 scholarships to give in the 2011 class, we are hoping they can still sign a pass first point.  But for a team that has struggled to score for almost 15 years, it’s refreshing to have 2 respected scorers in the backcourt, as well as Polee, who we think will fill it up in the front court.  As for style of play, we know special advisor Gene Keady always favored a methodical approach, and that he preaches patience and taking care of the ball. 

It should be interesting to see how Lavin and Keady find the right mix of styles to suit the stable of thoroughbreds Lavin has brought in, which is essentially made up of two scoring guards, as Lindsay is a shoot first player, and 4 small forwards.  Expect Lavin to turn his attention to signing at least a few impact big men with the remaining 5 scholarships he has available.

We’re actually more excited about St. John’s than the Knicks right now.  Feels like old times.

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