It’s still early in the season, but the St. John’s basketball team is well on its way to making its second NCAA Tournament appearance since 2002 and its first since 2011. The Red Storm (8-1) has beaten Minnesota and Syracuse, among others, and has just one loss: a 73-66 setback to then-No. 10 (now-No. 8) Gonzaga at Madison Square Garden in November.
Given that Gonzaga ranks in the top seven nationally in points per game, assists per game and field-goal percentage, it’s safe to say that was a quality loss.
What’s been the key for the Red Storm’s success this season?
It might be simpler than you think.
“You know what’s interesting? You can appreciate this,” St. John’s basketball coach Steve Lavin said on The Doug Gottlieb Show. “You played under great coaches. Your father was a coach. You understand development and maturity. So, if you look closely at it: As freshmen, the group won 13. Sophomores, 17 games. As juniors, 20. And now they’re 8-1 and in the top 20. So it’s really been a gradual climb. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
St. John’s fast start is even more impressive given the players the program has lost in recent years: Maurice Harkless, a 6-9 forward who plays for the Orlando Magic, JaKarr Sampson, a 6-9 forward who plays for the Philadelphia Sixers, and Amir Garrett, who is pursuing professional baseball. Garrett, 22, is a left-handed pitcher in the Cincinnati Reds’ farm system.
“Those three would be in this class – and you could imagine where we’d be ranked if we had those three,” Lavin said. “And yet, this group has just continued to improve. We’re getting contributions from the seniors.”
Chris Obekpa, a 6-10, 240-pound forward from Nigeria, has been a game-changer on both ends on the floor, averaging 7.0 points and 9.1 rebounds. He’s also averaging an eye-popping 3.7 blocks per game and even had an eight-block performance against LIU Brooklyn.
“Obekpa has come back in great condition . . . and (is) playing with more confidence on offense,” Lavin said. “And Rysheed Jordan, he’s very gifted – one of the better guards in terms of upside in the country.”
Jordan, a 6-4 sophomore, is averaging 15.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game.
“But the heart and soul of this team,” Lavin said, “is Phil Greene, Dominic Pointer, Jamal Branch, and D’Angelo Harrison.”
Harrison, a 6-4 senior from Missouri City, Texas, is averaging a team-high 19.7 points per game and is shooting 84.1 percent from the foul line and 36.4 percent from three. He has scored more than 2,000 career points.
“He’s still on the clock to finish second or third in the history of St. John’s,” Lavin said, “and most likely would have been the leading scorer in the history of the school, passing Chris Mullin, if he hand’t been suspended at the end of his sophomore year.”
St. John’s play its next two games at home against Saint Mary’s (6-2) and Long Beach State (5-6) on Dec. 19 and Dec. 22, respectively.