NEW YORK — For 20 minutes on Wednesday night, we got a glimpse of just how good this St. John’s team can be.
For 20 minutes, the talent and athleticism on Steve Lavin’s roster overwhelmed Minnesota, spurring the Johnnies to a 70-61 win in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden.
For 20 minutes, D’Angelo Harrison was hitting clutch shots, and Sir’Dominic Pointer was making energy plays all over the floor, and Chris Obekpa was turning the paint into an area that Minnesota was scared to enter.
And once those 20 minutes were finished, Harrison and Pointer were open and emphatic about the fact that they “grew up”, as Harrison put it, during halftime. That the Tale Of Two Halves was the Johnnies, during the break in the action, found the maturity and intensity needed to beat an undermanned Minnesota team.
“We played like little kids in the first half,” Pointer said.
They’re right. They did play timid in the first half, and that did change during the second half, but the jury is still out on whether or not this group has actually “grown up”.
Because if St. John’s is only going to show up for a half at a time, they’re going to be in trouble.
This program has the pieces to be an NCAA tournament team. They have the talent to finish in the top three in a Big East that has greatly exceeded expectations through the season’s first two weeks. Obekpa is the nation’s best shot-blocker, a 6-foot-9 athlete whose arms are as long as his shorts are short. Not only did he block three shots on Wednesday night, but he changed at least four times that many. With every touch that a Minnesota big man got in the post, he was cognizant of where Obekpa was. Every driver that got all the way to the rim had to try and finish knowing that Obekpa was lurking somewhere, waiting to pin his shot up against the backboard.
Having a presence like that around the basket means that the Johnnies can get out and pressure in the half court. They can gamble for steals and try to create turnovers because they know that anyone that gets by them will have to deal with the big fella. And when you have a team with as many athletes as St. John’s has playing in front of that presence, it creates a situation where you can force 20 turnovers and gather 16 steals in one game.
For that defense to be effective, all the Johnnies have to do is play hard, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that plays harder than them when they want to
“That’s who we have to be if we’re going to have to have a special season,” Lavin said.
“We did it on the defensive end,” Harrison added. “We’re a defensive team.”
But, as the first half indicated, that’s not always the team that shows up.
There is not a program in the country that consistently makes head-scratching plays more than the Johnnies. You never quite know what is going to happen when Rysheed Jordan or Harrison has the ball in their hands, and, sometimes, that is a good thing. They’re talented kids that can make things happen in the open floor. But when Jordan starts trying to prove that he’s a future lottery pick — he’s not — and Harrison starts chucking up quick, contested shots, things can go south in a hurry.
And therein lies the biggest issue for St. John’s. Their two most talented players are also their two most unreliable, and that’s never a good combination.
This sounds like I’m being overly negative about a team that just put on an impressive second half performance in a huge win for their season’s end goal. That’s not my intention, because I’m actually bullish on this group after seeing them play and hearing them talk.
Let me explain.
This is an important season for Harrison and Pointer. They were part of Lavin’s massive, nine-man 2011 recruiting class, the one that he brought in to replace the guys that left after their trip to the 2011 NCAA tournament. That group has never reached the Big Dance, and this year is the last chance for the guys that are leftover — Harrison, Pointer, Phil Greene IV.
Their legacy is on the line here, and that’s only half of the battle.
It’s hard not to think that Lavin’s job is on the line this season as well. He’s been in Queens for five seasons now, making just one NCAA tournament. That was in his first season, the year that he was beating cancer and Mike Dunlap was coaching the senior class that Norm Roberts left when he was fired. He’s now had a full four-year recruiting cycle, and, with that group, all he has amassed is a pair of trips to the NIT.
That’s only the half of it. St. John’s missed on two of their most important recruits during Lavin’s tenure, losing Isaiah Whitehead to Seton Hall this season and Isaiah Briscoe to Kentucky in the Class of 2015.
What that means is that there is a lot riding on this season, and based on the way that Harrison and Pointer were talking in the press conference, they seem to understand this.
“It’s time for us to grow up,” Pointer said. “We’ve been here for four years and we’ve got a good team this year.”
“This was one of the biggest games of our careers,” Harrison said, doubling down on a point he made earlier in the week when he said, “to come out 2-0 in this tournament would be big for this program in making people take us seriously.”
The Johnnies seem to believe that they have turned a corner this season, that they have grown up and are ready to finally live up to the hype they had when they entered the program more than three years ago.
“We showed it in the second half,” Harrison said, “and when we put together two halves like the second half, we’re going to be tough.”
Only time will tell if we actually see those two halves in the same game.