Phil Greene IV

NCAA tournament berth the final step for St. John’s senior class

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Steve Lavin’s three seniors have the NCAA tournament in their sights (AP Photo)

St. John’s has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2011, Steve Lavin’s first year as head coach. Following that season the Red Storm were forced to replace ten seniors, an unparalleled task in college basketball.

“After our first year we didn’t have one single returning player with D-I experience and that’s unprecedented in my career as an assistant, head coach and broadcaster,” Lavin said. “I don’t know if it will ever happen again at this level.”

Lavin and his staff responded to this challenge by securing a recruiting class ranked third best in the country, comprising of seven players: Sir‘Dominic Pointer, Maurice Harkless, D’Angelo Harrison, Amir Garrett, Phillip Greene IV as well as junior college transfers Nurideen Lindsey and God’sgift Achiuwa.

Since then, Harkless, Garrett, Lindsey and Achiuwa have moved on from St. John’s, leaving Pointer, Harrison and Greene to try to get the Red Storm back to the NCAA Tournament.

In the group’s first three years together they failed to do so, in large part due to inexperience. However, Lavin sees the growth of his team. “We’re closer, every year we’ve gotten a little bit closer,” he said. “So I think this group has learned.”

It is the one blemish on a recruiting class that has produced two 1,000-point scorers in Pointer and Greene, one 2,000-point scorer in Harrison and an NBA Draft pick in Harkless.

“It means everything,” responded Harrison in regards to an NCAA Tournament berth. “It’s the only thing I want to do, the only thing we haven’t done as a group.”

What this group has done, in the eyes of Lavin, is stabilize the St John’s program. “They’ve undeniably, incrementally made progress year after year and as a result they’ve put St. John’s in a position where we are competitive again after going through a decade or more not being competitive,” Lavin explained. “We are back to being a competitive program and that was the goal.”

The next, and final, step for this class is to punch a ticket to the Big Dance. “Now we have work to do because we want to send them out as they deserve, on a high note with an NCAA tournament appearance,” said Lavin.

St. John’s currently sits fifth in the Big East with a record of 19-9 (8-7) with three regular season games remaining, including a showdown with sixth-ranked Villanova in the final game of the season.

In College Basketball Talk’s latest edition of bracketology the Red Storm are a nine-seed and the players know that a strong finish to the season will eliminate any doubt of a tournament berth.

“We go 3-0 in these last three games, we will be worried about where we are going instead of are we in,” said Harrison, a finalist for the Senior CLASS Award. “We finish the season on a high note and once we get there we know we can make noise. We just have to get there first.”

Coming down the stretch this is the focus for St. John’s. The individual accomplishments of these players are well documented, but they have not quenched their thirst for postseason success.

Big East Player of the Year contender Sir’Dominic Pointer summed it up, “As long as we make the NCAA tournament, that’s all that matters. These awards, they come, they go, the tournament stays with you forever.”

St. John’s experimented with a five-guard lineup Saturday

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Heading into the start of the regular season, St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin doesn’t have as much depth as he would like in the front court. Chris Obekpa is the team’s most experienced interior option, and the loss of junior college transfer Keith Thomas as a result of the ongoing academic fraud scandal at Westchester (New York) CC last month didn’t help matters at all.

Redshirt sophomore Christian Jones and freshmen Adonis De La Rosa and Amar Alibegovic will be expected to contribute, and the lack of depth means that the Red Storm will need to find alternate ways in which to attack the opposition. With Obekpa sitting out with an ankle injury that isn’t expected to keep him out of the team’s regular season opener against NJIT on November 14, Lavin made the decision to play a five-guard lineup at times in the team’s 97-71 exhibition victory over St. Thomas Aquinas on Saturday.

D’Angelo Harrison led five players in double figures with 19 points while also grabbing ten rebounds, and in total five St. John’s players scored in double figures. But the biggest takeaway from the exhibition is St. John’s going to a smaller lineup, one that gives them the ability to attack teams on both ends of the floor. St. John’s forced 20 turnovers Saturday, and offensively they made ten of their 20 three-point attempts and shot 23-for-28 from the foul line.

Following the game, Lavin discussed the impact that their smaller lineup can have on games.

“We have the ability to go small and cause some problems at a fast tempo,” Lavin said at the postgame press conference. “We like to play small, but we also want to bring the depth of our front line along at a pace that will allow us to be competitive later in the season.”

With Harrison, Phil Greene IV, Jamal Branch and Rysheed Jordan, the Red Storm don’t lack for depth on the perimeter, and combo forward Sir’Dominic Pointer gives the Red Storm the ability to set up some mismatches at the four. Having Obekpa will obviously change some things from a rotation standpoint, but given their depth on the perimeter there will be times when St. John’s looks to go small in order to set up (and ultimately exploit) mismatches.

St. John’s guards don’t lack confidence as 2014-15 season approaches

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As the start of practices approaches, one question being asked is who will challenge defending regular season champion Villanova for Big East supremacy. Jay Wright’s Wildcats return the majority of their rotation from last season, with the biggest loss being first team All-Big East selection James Bell, so they’ll likely be favored to repeat as a result.

As for the question about possible challengers, that picture isn’t as clear as we approach the month of October. One team hoping to be Villanova’s stiffest test is St. John’s, with the Red Storm aiming for (at minimum) the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011. Steve Lavin’s Red Storm have some questions to answer in the front court, with newcomers Keith Thomas, Adonis Delarosa and Amir Alibegovic arriving on campus in a position where they’ll need to contribute immediately alongside junior Chris Obekpa.

As for the backcourt, St. John’s lacks neither depth nor talent, with seniors D’Angelo Harrison, Phil Greene IV and Jamal Branch, junior Sir’Dominic Pointer and sophomore Rysheed Jordan leading the way at the three perimeter spots. And in an article written by Zach Braziller of the New York Post, the guards didn’t lack confidence when discussing their standing amongst the nation’s top perimeter rotations.

Take senior guard Phil Greene IV, for instance, who was asked if the Johnnies have the best backcourt in the Big East.

“The country,” he said emphatically during St. John’s Dribble for the Cure cancer fundraiser event on campus Saturday afternoon. “You see it every day in practice. We compete at a high level…Versatile. Each of us brings different skills to the game and to our team. That’s what makes us such a deep backcourt.”

Greene was the first to make the bold proclamation, but he was backed firmly by fellow senior guards D’Angelo Harrison and Jamal Branch.

Harrison was the most productive of the guards last season, averaging 17.5 points per contest while shooting a career-best 37 percent from beyond the arc. But it’s Jordan who has the greatest upside among the players in Lavin’s perimeter rotation. Jordan was a more consistent option during conference play, with his best performance (24 points, three assists vs. Georgetown, 20 points, six assists vs. Marquette) coming in the season’s final month.

There’s no question that the Philadelphia native is talented; if he can build on the improvement shown late last season the Red Storm will be a more difficult team to defend.

There will be a number of teams (and fan bases) who will beg to differ with Greene’s assessment and his teammates backing the statement, and that’s perfectly fine. But what’s also understood is that the Red Storm guards will have to go out and back up their claims on a nightly basis when the season begins.

And given the major question marks in the front court, whether or not they prove capable of doing so will have a significant impact on how much success St. John’s enjoys this season.

Xavier frustrates St. John’s in crucial resume game

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There hasn’t been a hotter team in Big East play since late January than St. John’s. Steve Lavin’s squad was both clicking on defense (forcing countless steals) and on offense (consistently converting from two-point range), and the team looked like an shoo-in for an NCAA tournament bid. However, it appears the Red Storm has reverted to the mean: after a loss to Villanova this weekend, Xavier (19-9, 9-7), thanks to the best game of forward Jalen Reynolds’ career, defeated the Johnnies, now 18-11 (and 8-8 in conference play).

The 6-foot-9 Reynolds was suspended by coach Chris Mack in late January, and missed two games while ‘dealing with responsibilities greater than basketball‘. Since he returned to the floor, Reynolds has been solid, but no one could have predicted his outburst tonight: the big scored 17 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, completely beasting SJU’s frontcourt and single-handedly dominating the Red Storm in the paint. Like the Villanova loss, though, St. John’s was within single-digits for most of the game, but could not find any sort of offensive rhythm: the team scored just .80 points per possession and converted 47 percent of their twos. In their first match-up, Xavier was content to pack the paint and let SJU try their luck from mid-range — the Red Storm has never met an 18 footer they didn’t want to take — and the Musketeers benefited again from this strategy. Phil Greene IV and D’Angelo Harrison shot a combined 2 for 16, and six of JaKarr Sampson’s 17 field goal attempts were mid-range misses.

This was an important game for both teams: St. John’s will now have to win out their remaining slate, which includes games against DePaul and Marquette, and reach at least the semifinals of the Big East tournament to get a bid for NCAAs (and even that prognostication might be too generous). What is more likely is that the Red Storm will crack the NIT field, a disappointing result for a team that faced such great expectations during the preseason. This win greatly boosted Xavier’s at-large chances: Mack’s squad likely still has to beat Seton Hall and split their upcoming Creighton and Villanova contests, but XU’s path to the postseason became a bit clearer.