MBB : Stormy season: After rough start for St. John’s, talented freshmen starting to lead Red Storm

first_img Comments Published on January 31, 2012 at 12:00 pm Contact Chris: [email protected] | @chris_iseman Amir Garrett couldn’t stand it. Of all the seasons to be a freshman on St. John’s, this was the best one, and he was missing it.The Red Storm has no depth and no senior leadership. The door was open for the rookies to step up, take over and drive the program. But Garrett sat six hours north of the St. John’s campus at a prep school in Maine, feeling completely helpless.His spot with the Red Storm was solidified, but he couldn’t be there. Yet.‘It was very tough knowing I can’t be here to help my brothers out,’ Garrett said. ‘It was very frustrating. I was just — I can’t even explain how it felt for the first couple of months. I’m here now, so that’s all that matters.’Garrett was a part of the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class put together by second-year head coach Steve Lavin one season after taking SJU to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002. But one of the most highly touted recruiting classes in college basketball slowly became one of the biggest disappointments. Garrett, JaKarr Sampson and Norvel Pelle were all supposed to be with the team at the start of the season. Instead, all three were prohibited from participating due to academic ineligibility. They enrolled in prep schools while they improved their academic standing, but Garrett is the only one of the three to have joined the Red Storm after three months at the Bridgton Academy in Maine.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textAll told, the Red Storm (9-12, 3-6 Big East) has somewhat maintained stability despite the misfortune. When No. 2 Syracuse (22-1, 9-1) travels to New York City this weekend to play SJU, it will face a talented group of freshmen capable of hanging with the Orange.The declaration by the NCAA that they were ineligible began a year of adversity for St. John’s, which has dealt with a depleted roster, a lack of experience and a head coach stricken with prostate cancer and has been unable to coach in games. Adding to the troubles, Nurideen Lindsey, a key part of the St. John’s offense at the start of the season, transferred to Rider in mid-January.It’s impossible to know how much better the Red Storm would have been if they had their full recruiting class. Brian Snow, a national recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said the incoming class took a ‘tremendous hit’ and that it’s plausible St. John’s would have had more success had it not fallen apart.‘It’s certainly tough to say, but I certainly think they’d be at least a couple wins better because you’ve got more depth, more versatility, more athleticism, more bodies,’ Snow said. ‘I mean right now, if they’re in foul trouble, they’re in deep crap. Whereas you put those guys in there before, and you’ve got more bodies that make the plays.’It’s a group of freshmen guaranteed to see plenty of time on the floor, simply because assistant coach Mike Dunlap — who has filling in for Lavin while he recovers from cancer — and the Red Storm coaching staff have no other choice.‘We don’t have any depth, so we have to play them,’ special assistant and advisor Gene Keady said. ‘But they’re starting to learn, and they’re getting the techniques down and learning how to execute and play hard and do all those things like blocking out, sprinting back on defense and making the free throws. They’re starting to learn how to play right.’West Virginia saw SJU’s growth firsthand.Starting five freshmen for the first time since the 1927-28 season’s ‘Wonder Five,’ St. John’s beat the Mountaineers 78-62 on Jan. 25 behind standout Moe Harkless’ 23 points. In the Red Storm’s next game, St. John’s lost to powerhouse Duke by a mere seven points on the road at Cameron Indoor Stadium.Both games highlighted how talented the Red Storm’s freshmen are and displayed what Snow saw before the season: a group of freshmen that, with time, could be superior.‘I certainly think them having a huge impact on the team was certainly an expectation coming in,’ Snow said. ‘Not just because of their ability but because of their opportunity.’Harkless is averaging 16.6 points per game, D’Angelo Harrison is scoring 15.8 and junior transfer God’s Gift Achiuwa is adding 11.8. Perhaps more impressive, though, is that those three are also playing an average of 34.4 minutes per game.When Lavin and the Storm made its appearance in the NCAA Tournament last season, it did so with 10 seniors. This season, the team’s most experienced returning player is guard Malik Stith, who’s averaging a paltry 2.8 points per game. So experience and depth is replaced by a young group of developing players at the start of the season.‘Our focus right now is on playing a higher level of basketball, elevating our play at both ends of the floor,’ Lavin said during the Big East coaches’ teleconference Jan. 19. ‘The way we’ve got to do that as a staff is set out some attainable goals in terms of both sides of the ball and try to achieve those objectives.’Once Garrett arrived in Queens, he had no time to adjust. He wasn’t going to ride the bench. St. John’s needed players, and Garrett arrived at the right time.For Garrett, it was baptism by fire in the truest form. Garrett, who was initially the team’s sixth man, has started the last three games and is playing almost 22 minutes per game, scoring 5.3 points per contest. While he continues to develop, the 6-foot-6 forward is at least providing some relief for the Red Storm.Garrett said he is starting to find a comfort zone after some early struggles that resulted from overthinking and a constant conscious effort to avoid mistakes. Now, Garrett said, he simply focuses on playing basketball, just as all of his fellow freshmen are doing.‘It’s a young group of guys. It’s been pretty good,’ Garrett said. ‘We’re all coming together as a family. I like playing with them a lot. Playing in the Big East is a lot what I expected. It’s crazy playing in the Big East because everybody is so good and so athletic, and everybody is just as good as you or even better.’Though all of the Red Storm’s rookies have impressed league opponents, Harkless has been a source of stability in an otherwise up-and-down season. Playing at a level beyond his years, Harkless burst on to the Big East scene, scoring 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting and grabbing 13 rebounds against Providence on Dec. 27.At 6 feet 8 inches, Harkless has been a force, leading a young team in one of the toughest conferences in the nation as a freshman himself.‘I’m very impressed with him. I really like him,’ Keady said. ‘I think he’s long and lanky and can get above people with his shot. He rebounds well, too. He’s really growing up and learning how to play with a maturity that maybe juniors have.’That’s what’s keeping St. John’s hopeful for the future. After the youthful Red Storm beat a tough West Virginia team and gave Duke a run for its money, the program’s future appears bright.Before the season started, Keady and the Red Storm coaches saw the talent, but also the rawness of their young players. As the year has gone on, though, that talent has shined as they’ve matured.And this is only the start.‘We knew how talented they were, we just didn’t have them playing together like we liked,’ Keady said. ‘Now they’re starting to get that, so that’s going to be a great improvement for us if we can keep it going.’[email protected]center_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img

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