Budding 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.
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.
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!!!!!