Phil Greene


JaKarrROW5Budding star Jakarr Sampson and a robust looking Steve Lavin (above).

If you have been watching St. John’s of late, you’ve no doubt seen both stretches of rapture and ineptitude.  In their wins, they seem to run out to big leads, only to watch them dissolve and then hold on for dear life.  In the losses, save for a blowout at the hands of Georgetown (which came as no surprise) they seem to get those leads also.  And then they meekly fritter them away, plagued by stretches, minutes on end, whole intervals between commercial breaks where the squad can’t score, or even pull one decent look.  But the losses have come rather infrequently of late, as St. John’s has now battled to 13-7, staging 4 largely impressive wins in a row, and looks to make it 14-7 tonight with a very big home game against DePaul, one of those teams who St. John’s looked all world against in their first meeting for part of the 2nd half, and who then had to scramble late against to come out with the win.

The offense might be described as meek, especially during peak inefficiency, which has basically cost them almost all 7 of their losses this year.  But do not make the mistake of calling the group meek.  The Johnnies are obviously blessed with tremendous fortitude, an attitude which starts with Coach Lavin and the rest of the staff, and is exemplified by some extremely gritty players on the court.  Obviously D’Angelo Harrison is imminently suited for Big East basketball, and as the team leader, has truly led.  As disappointed as fans had to be with their loss to Rutgers at MSG, a game in which Harrison missed a bevy of critical free throws in the games final stages, one had to be pleased with Harrison’s way of owning up to the loss.  One thing we can not stand is when players take losses too well, and don’t seem upset after losses, especially when they have made mistakes that play a large role in the outcome.  So when Harrison said that night, when he returned to campus, he was going right to the gym to shoot free throws, well, that’s all you can ask of a kid in terms of attitude.  Obviously Harrison, at 20th in the nation in scoring with 19.8 PPG, is not afraid to be the catalyst on offense, and while his shot selection is often questionable, we are not about to question his willingness or the results.  Harrison is equally valuable for his intangible qualities.  Against Notre Dame at MSG, then 14-2, Harrison stuffed 6’10 Tom Knight, giving away some 8 inches to come up with that block that helped key what was probably St. John’s best win all year.  Not just because of the opponent but because of how they played.  In that game, St. John’s won both halves, a rare feat for this squad in Big East play. And still the contest came down to another monstrous block in the waning seconds, as Chris Obepka, who we’re sky high on, rejected Pat Connaughton, sending the ball off Connaughton’s head and out of bounds, so that St. John’s also gained possession.

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Obepka is a special player.  As a freshman, he is second in the nation in blocks at 4.6 a game, is also collecting 5.9 RPG, and is already by far the most dominant interior defender in school history.  What a tremendous coup by this staff it was in securing Obepka for St. John’s.  Frankly, we see Obepka as a component in a near future final 4 team, and we already see him improving his court positioning, expanding his offense, and taking better fouls.  A kid like Obepka, who has at times literally put a lid on the hoop for long stretches of clock, makes it possible for St. John’s to come up empty on offense itself for long runs and still be in a position to get W’s.

Now we’d like to temper our criticisms of Lavin’s recruitment of transfer Jamal Branch, who is a talent who has fit in and made plays.  After the bust that was Nurideen Lindsay, we are down on shoot first point guards, transfer point guards, and to a degree, national as opposed to local products.  But Branch’s 9 PPG and 2.4 APG have generated about 14 PPG for a team that struggled to break 60 before he arrived. Most impressive about Branch is he knows when to shoot.  How often do you see a guard shoot 50% from the field?  Branch is shooting .556, and against DePaul in Rosemont, Branch shot 9-14 while attempting zero 3’s.

It’s been contagious.  The Johnnies are a poor team from beyond the arc, and so they don’t play to that weakness, attempting precious few 3’s relative to most programs.  Still, they’ve made a few big bombs.  We were very happy to see Dom Pointer drill a 3 from the top of the circle late against Seton Hall, a just reward for Pointer, a real heart and soul player, now fully adapted to the Big East big boy style.

Jakarr Sampson, the much touted freshman wing, has also adapted very well to conference play.  Sampson has emerged as a consistent scorer and rebounder (14.3/6.5) and on offense, is the team’s best player on the block, and probably filling the lane in transition, where he has had some highlight reel dunks.  Also, we are now very happy with his haircut. With Harrison and Sampson forming a big 2 offensively, and with Pointer and Obepka playing key roles defensively while chipping in with opportunistic play on offense, the Johnnies really only need a combination of 2 out 3 remaining  regulars to be going offensively, and it seems to us that Phil Greene, Amir Garrett, and Branch are very capable when viewed in that light.  They seem to become more capable every day.

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With Sampson, like with Mo Harkless last year, we may have a bit of a catch-22.  We’d love to qualify for the dance, obviously, and will need Sampson to play to his capability in order to.  All along we felt Sampson was a long shot to leave for the NBA after this season, but now, we’re not so sure, especially if St. John’s does what it needs to do down the stretch, which will be to win the ones they should (Providence, DePaul, USF) and steal a couple they shouldn’t (Louisville, Georgetown, Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame, UConn(?)).  Should St. John’s muster some magic here in the regular season’s final 9 contests, we feel the likelihood of Sampson leaving increases dramatically.  Frankly, a kid of his age, hops, and upside would not be a bad gamble midway through the first round of the draft this year, and a playoff team with the luxury of grooming a player a little would make a perfect fit for him.  In fact, we were all set to include a Youtube clip of Sampson on a break away dunk, but have thought better of it, as this kid does not need any further promotion.

But really, we are not worried about wins we should have had, defections, or the tournament too much right now.  We are enjoying this season for what it is–a tracking of the growth of a team set to morph into a dangerous contender, which is already starting show some if its true colors.  We feel this club could survive without Sampson next year, even without The Big East as a conference, as we are fairly certain that St. John’s will land in a strong, probably basketball only off shoot of the Big East, with Catholic schools like Georgetown, St. John’s, and Villanova as anchors.

Of course we are also thrilled to have back strong the key cog, which is a healthy Steve Lavin.  It was extremely disheartening to hear Lavin tell Mike Francesa in November that he was still only about “80%” back to normal, and we were obviously very concerned for him and sympathetic, on a personal level.  We would not be surprised if Coach is still not at 100%, but by our count, he’s doing one of his best coaching jobs of his career with this group, which has, astoundingly, gotten absolutely zero contributions from any upper classmen.  With the program and Lavin both on solid footing, and with the Johnnies poised next year for their best year in perhaps 2 decades, we hope that Monasch and Harrington have sense enough to lock up Lavin with a state of the art, wrap around/flex contract that we now see given to elite coaches, which essentially automatically extend at the end of each season without any reopeners.

LET’S GO REDMEN!!!!!

Crack (https://crackbillionair.wordpress.com)

Dominant interior defender Chris Obepka (above) for St. John’s today in Jamaica.

Despite being home at Carnesecca to start the season, we were not expecting big things from St. John’s today against Detroit.  So when we picked up the action late in the first half and the Johnnies were trailing 30-25, and 34-28, we were not surprised.  In the second half, the team looked a bit better, but they were missing key free throws and open jumpers until about half way through.  One kid in particular with a penchant for fall away jump shots had us particularly rankled, and longing for Norvel Pelle.  St. John’s had definitely stepped up their intensity and their defensive effort in the 2nd half, which led to several fast break opportunities, but when failing to convert them, the Johnnies had let Detroit’s lead grow to 49-41 and at that point, we were just watching to see what happened next, and not particularly expecting much.

But then that kid who seemed to like fall aways from the elbow decided to justify Lavin’s faith for awarding him a precious late scholarship, which so many fans questioned at the time.  Chris Obekpa, all of 6’8, took over the game, putting a virtual lid on the basket, along with one of the jewels of the 2011 class, D’Angelo Harrison, who contributed 15 2nd half points, and 13 in the final 7 minutes, for 22 points in 29 minutes off the bench, allowing St. John’s to come back from down 60-53 with 9 or so minutes to play, and to end the game on a 24-14 run, en route to a 77-74 victory.  The win already gives St. John’s an impressive non-conference victory in their first game in a game where hard core supporters like us were probably not expecting the world, despite the Johnnies coming in as a slim favorite, in all likelihood, because of their home court advantage.

Lavin was back on the sideline where he belongs, back in his tie-less suit and white sneakers.  LOL.  He might have dressed it up a little more had he known it was to be one for the record books.  Nigerian freshman by way of Long Island, Chris Obepka, broke Rob Werdann’s 23 year old blocked shot record, finishing with 8 on the afternoon.  We counted 9 ourselves, but we can not quibble over Obepka’s tally, who, frankly, already has turned heads and has us praying that he isn’t going to be a one and done kind of kid.

Many believed that Jakarr Sampson would be a one and done guy, but his debut was not as sterling.  Sampson struggled, and though he started, converted on only 1-7 FG’s, for 2 points (but he did manage 6 boards).  St. John’s outshot Detroit (45.9% to 35.1%), and out-rebounded Detroit (31-21), excelling in both categories largely on the strength of Obekpa, who also had 8 boards, and who, by game’s end had us reverse our thinking on Pelle.  Because frankly, we don’t think the Johnnies have had a defensive player of Obepka’s size and ability ever.

In addition to Sampson, Lavin started Obekpa, Amir Garrett (who thankfully is sticking with basketball despite being 6’7 with a 95 MPH fast ball), Phil Greene, Freshman Christian Jones, with Harrison and Pointer off the bench.

Also, notably, Greene played the entire 40 minutes and had 20 pts.  Garrett contributed 15 and 11 boards in 34 minutes.  Harrison, who led the offensive surge in the 2nd half, came off the bench along with Dom Pointer, who, seemed out of place to us.  He had only 3 points in 18 minutes and was routinely beaten off the dribble, despite his reputation for defensive prowess.

Thursday @ 5 PM St. John’s will play its 1st road game against the College of Charleston.

LET’S GO REDMEN!

Crack (https://crackbillionair.wordpress.com)

 

Tonight at Carneseca in Jamaica, the St. John’s ‘Red Storm’ will open their season against William and Mary with Mike Dunlap running the team in place of Steve Lavin. Lavin is still recovering from prostate cancer surgery underwent on October 5th, and there doesn’t seem to be any concrete timetable for Lavin’s return. The team is in good hands with Dunlap running the bench. Dunlap will need to live up to his reputation as a mad scientist considering St. John’s tumultuous roster situation, dealt blows by the key ineligibilities of C Norvel Pelle, F Jakarr Sampson, and slasher Amir Garrett.

Imagine Maurice Harkless, shaping up to be the squad’s standout, was ruled in eligible for having had indirect contact with Director of Basketball Operations, Mo Hicks. It looked like the NCAA might come down on Harkless because Hicks had worked for Rice HS within 2 years of Harkless’s recruitment. Fortunately for St. John’s, Hicks had not coached Harkless within 2 years of his recruitment else the Johnnies would be starting a walk-on up front tonight.

The staff has done a great job recovering from the 3 big ineligibilities this fall, successfully re-recruiting most important big man Norvel Pelle for 2012-2013, getting the explosive Garrett cleared to play in January, and getting commitments from Ricardo Gathers and Darrick Wood for 2012-2013.

Unfortunately, St. John’s has not been able to get a renewed commitment from Sampson, who played lights out this summer at the various AM-IN’s, and who could have been the team’s best player. We hear that Lavin has found time to visit Sampson a few times since the ruling, leaving the door still open for the multi-talented Ohio native.

With the squad as is, even sans Lavin for now, we see a much more talented group than last year’s tournament team. This team still has God’s Gift Achiuwa (top) to man the middle, and Harkless and Sir’Dominic Pointer flanking him round out the best starting frontline they have boasted since Ron Artest, um, we mean Metta World Peace.

Our man Malik Stith (kidding), the only returning player of ‘note’ and the team’s elder statesman, will be in the backcourt mix, especially since he is the closest thing to a true point guard this team has. Not that his talent really justifies major minutes. Nurideen Lindsey, who comes to St. John’s from Phily by way of Redlands CC (Oklahoma), is a scorer who will be cast in the lead role. Lindsey too was nearly ineligible, and had to work diligently, so we hear, to earn enough credit hours to play. If you’re sensing a theme at work here about the quality of the St. John’s recruit in terms of character and academic standing, that’s not our drift. Character and academic standing of top recruits are problems that are pandemic within the sport. For proof of such, one need not look further than Storrs.

Lavin and co. have done a great job repopulating the program with talent, and that was job one. Lindsey, probably the team’s best weapon at guard, was discussed in many 2nd round mockups of last June’s NBA draft, despite the “lack of formal basketball” over the past 2 years. Two other very talented guards should see significant minutes, with D’Angelo Harrison of Texas likely starting and Phil Greene of Chicago likely coming off the bench.

The squad will be punched up considerably when the freakishly athletic Garrett can suit up in January. And though we love Dunlap and were thrilled when he announced he’d be returning despite interest from schools in need of a head coach out west, we also know Lavin’s return will be a big boost to the team.

While we are not oncology experts by any stretch, we are very concerned for coach Lavin. Obviously his situation is somewhat dicey. We thought it odd that his surgery would come during basketball season, essentially, and that his dr’s needed so much time to decide on a course of action.

Not to be flip by any means as we are sure the coach is in good hands. Still, we hate not seeing him, tie or no tie, running the bench.

At current, the Johnnies are favored by 8.5 pts tonight. Wednesday they will face Lehigh at Carneseca.

LET’S GO REDMEN!

Crack (https://crackbillionair.wordpress.com)

Eerie CC All-American God’s Gift Achiuwa (below).

Eerie, Pennsylvania JUCO star by way of Nigeria, God’s Gift Achiuwa, the 9th leading scorer and 10th leading rebounder last season in NJCAA, has finally committed to St. John’s University after recently ruling out Washington and Kentucky, and then selecting the Johnnies over Big East rival Cincinnati this week.  For those of you who are confused about the lad’s name, or already under the impression that God’s Gift walked St. John’s sideline–Steve Lavin–understand that we are talking about a 6’8/6’9 beast of a power forward who Lavin and staff have been recruiting for months.  Achiuwa, the son of a Nigerian minister, is 1 of 6 siblings who all have unique first names, including “God’s Will”, “Promise”, and “Peace.”

It’s been a good month for St. John’s, who in the wake of their first tournament berth in 10 years, retained their X’s and O’s wizard Mike Dunlap, who looked to be in the running for top spots with Oregon and UNLV at the final four, and who insiders credit as having taken apart Duke video for 9 months in preparation for St. John’s astounding 93-78 blowout of the then defending national champions.  That the St. John’s staff suffered no defections thus far, with most head coaching vacancies already set, must be considered a victory.  By the way, did anyone notice that the guy who almost took Lavin’s job, Paul Hewitt, accepted the top spot at George Mason, earlier today?  We’re convinced that no one is second guessing that near miss after Hewitt’s 2nd straight shaky season at Tech and a conference downgrade, not to mention the boatload of dollars Hewitt was able to walk away with because of his fancy rollover contract (every year rollover contracts re-set to the original dollars and duration, meaning Hewitt walked with the full value of the contract his agent renegotiated last spring).

Though most publications and media outlets that rank incoming classes already had the Johnnies near the top (www.rivals.com currently has St. John’s at #2 behind Kentucky), as close observers, we believed that God’s Gift, or “Gift”, as the staff refers to him for short, was a crucial get for the Johnnies, who will not win big without size.  St. John’s first round loss to Gonzaga underscored how a lack of size will kill you in the tournament, as did Big East tournament loss to Syracuse on our home floor.  Though the incoming class is being heralded for its shooting and athleticism on the wing, it is comprised of only two big men: Norvel Pelle and Dwight Meickle, and there are questions about both.  Pelle, probably the best of all St. John’s recruits, is a very thin 6’9, and the common notion is that he needs a heavy to do his dirty work for him.  That heavy would be God’s Gift, who is about 240 lbs. of solid muscle.  Meickle, a Long Island product, appeared to be a back of the rotation guy or perhaps less, and that was before God’s Gift made it official.

Those wondering about the look of the starting five are not in the minority.  Though Lavin himself has confirmed that scoring point guard Nurideen Lindsey would be eligible for the start of the 2011 season, we are hearing that he has many credits to complete and that the hopes for his eligibility are ambitious.  There are also loud questions about his commitment to defense, which, if true, will see him languish on the bench when he does arrive, despite his ability to score at will.  Most considered Queens product Maurice Harkless the gem of the class, though it now seems Mo may not crack the starting 5 due to the team’s depth at the 3 and probable need to start both Pelle and Gift.  Harkless is competing for minutes with standout Ohio prospect Jakarr Sampson, and Sir Dominic Pointer, a Detroit prospect who, last year was hailed as a defensive stopper, and now is considered the best all around player in St. John’s class.  And Sophomore Dwayne Polee II will also be vying for minutes.  We can’t imagine a line of freshmen coming in and surpassing Polee, who has already acclimated to the program.

We’d be a bit surprised if Polee, Pelle, and Achiuwa don’t start up front.  We think Harkless and Pointer will see heavy minutes up front as well.  It wouldn’t surprise us if Malik Stith gets some minutes at point, returning for his junior year.  We’ve made fun of him on numerous occasions, but we think the coaches will opt for the stability he offers over a shoot first freshman point guard.  He also may play a little better with better talent around him.  As the year goes on, we think the coaches might stash Stith on the bench in favor of Phil Greene and that Amir Garrett will get a lot of minutes as the 3rd guard.

In 2012, Jevon Thomas comes in and takes the reins as the high quality talent pass first point guard, which, at the moment, is the only position the Johnnies lack.  The staff must also open a few scholarships in the hopes of landing local standouts Kyle Anderson, a 5 position player in high school, and power forward Ricardo Gathers.  Both Anderson and Gathers are frequently mentioned as kids who are giving a lot of thought to coming to St. John’s.

Best news of all regarding the program has to be the nature of Steve Lavin’s prostate cancer, which doctor’s are confident will be cured.  We weren’t surprised at all to learn that Lavin knew about his health situation and had kept the condition a secret while he worked tirelessly to build the foundation of the program.

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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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https://crackbillionair.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/lavin-lands-norvel-pelle-norm-roberts-takes-gig-sny/

https://crackbillionair.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/lavin-in-cali-hot-for-top-recruit/

https://crackbillionair.wordpress.com/2010/12/15/memo-to-fordham-curb-your-enthusiasm/

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