Big East Preview: Interview with Rumble in the Garden

Chris Torello —  August 14th, 2013 8:57 AM —  Comments
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As the final days of summer begin to wind down it is time to start turning our attention to Friar Basketball and the 2013-14 season. We will be taking a closer look at the teams in the Big East and we focus on St. John’s. Last season St. John’s finished at 17-16 (8-10) and did not make postseason play. For a look at this upcoming season, and what we can expect from the Red Storm, we have two St. John’s bloggers helping us out for this edition.

Quinn Rochford: Editor/Writer, Rumble in the Garden; @QSTJHoops

Norman Rose: Editor-in-chief, Rumble in the Garden; @ecoastbias

1. In 100 words or less describe St. John’s 2012-13 season.

Quinn: If you were to ask me to do it in one word, I would have said “chaotic.” Aside from the up-and-down season on the court, where the Red Storm found themselves losing its final four conference games after starting 8-6, St. John’s endured a lot off the floor as well. Between Steve Lavin’s father, Cap, passing away in February, Orlando Sanchez’ legal fight for 2013-14 eligibility and D’Angelo Harrison’s season-ending suspension, the Johnnies lit enough fireworks to light the sky. So, when you look at the body of work that culminated in an NIT berth, the result wasn’t terrible but still shy of expectations.

Norman: Talent and athleticism laid low by the problems of shooting skill, and a little bit of personality conflict. On paper, there’s a lot to like about the Johnnies season of grit and talent in search of shooters – and the defense was excellent, powered by Chris Obekpa’s shotblocking and defensive length – but the team struggled to score, especially in second halves. A five game win streak over the bottom of the league covered some deficiencies.

2. What is this team’s biggest strength heading into the 2013-14 season?

Quinn: As we roll into 2013-14, the Johnnies possess a few team strengths – notably their depth and, gulp, their experience (we’re still getting comfortable with this reality). But what St. John’s may have more than anyone in the Big East and a lot of other teams in the country is an inordinate amount of athleticism, and this really isn’t anything new. Since Lavin was hired in 2010, he’s focused his recruiting attention on athletic, lengthy wings. Sir’Dominic Pointer, JaKarr Sampson and shotblocking guru Chris Obekpa are three of the best athletes this program has ever had. St. John’s will fly high, and fly often.

Norman: Defensive length and depth. Obekpa is good, Sir`Dominic Pointer is gritty, and Rysheed Jordan could be a real asset on defense with his length at the point guard spot.

2a. What is the big concern for this season?

Quinn: We said that St. John’s biggest strength is its athleticism. We’re not going to attribute its biggest concern as a result of its biggest strength, but there is a correlation. In short, the Johnnies haven’t been able to shoot. They shot at a 27% clip from the perimeter as a team in 2012-13, with the only true threat being D’Angelo Harrison. Yet even he wasn’t consistent enough, making just 58 of 184 three-point attempts (31.5%).

Unless you have an extremely impactful interior presence on the post, college basketball is a shooter’s game. So as the Johnnies’ shooters struggled mightily to be efficient, the offensive production suffered as a result. The Red Storm ranked 229th nationally in points per game (66.3) and 258th in field goal percentage (41.6%). If St. John’s can get Harrison to become more conistent and add one or two more reliable scorers (likely Sampson and Sanchez), the improvements will be prominent.

Norman: Shooting. Even in a Big East without Louisville and Syracuse, who clubbed the Johnnies in their first halves despite being athletically comparable, the Red Storm still have to find ways of putting the ball into the basket efficiently. It’s great to drag other teams into the muck, but talented players can get hot for a two or three minute stretch and destroy what had been a scintillating defensive performance.

3. Give us an outlook of the program: Newcomers/Exiting players? Potential Starters/leaders?

Quinn: The advantage St. John’s and perhaps Providence has over the a lot of the teams in the conference is its low turnover. The Johnnies bring back an extremely high percentage of its scoring from a year ago as they return everyone except for Amir Garrett, who decided to transfer to Cal State Northridge for basketball and focus on his baseball career in the Cincinnati Reds organization.

On top of the returners, St. John’s brings in highly heralded freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan from Philly, Sanchez, and Harvard transfer and three-point specialist Max Hooper. They also welcome back bruising forward God’sgift Achiuwa, who redshirted last season.

The starting lineup will likely be any combination of Harrison, Phil Greene IV, Pointer, Sampson, Jordan, Sanchez and Obekpa. The team will benefit greatly if Harrison is able to assume the leadership position he clearly wasn’t ready to handle last year.

Norman: Potential starters: Rysheed Jordan, D`Angelo Harrison, Sir`Dominic Pointer, JaKarr Sampson, Chris Obekpa. With Harrison leading in points, Obekpa leading in blocks, and maybe Orlando Sanchez off the bench leading in rebounds… no, that’ll be JaKarr Sampson, because he’ll get lots of minutes.

4. JaKarr Sampson had a breakout freshman season on his way to Big East Rookie of the Year honors. What areas will JaKarr need to improve in for a successful sophomore season?

Quinn: If JaKarr can bulk up a bit in his upper body and improve his mid-range jump shot, he could contend for Big East First Team honors. As a freshman, Sampson was raw but showed that he was pretty darn close to being ready to excel on this stage. The mechanics of his shot seem unnatural, and I will be interested to see if the staff has dared to tinker with it.

With that said, the reigning Big East Rookie of the Year averaged 14.9 points per game his first time around. Barring an unforeseen sophomore slump, Sampson is geared for a big second season in a Johnnies uniform. If St. John’s is going to have a resurgence in 2013-14, he’s going to be right in the middle of it – with a huge Spongebob Squarepants smile, of course. (don’t ask – long story)

Norman: Shooting from behind the line, not with a foot ON the line. Defense. Possibly consistency of form in his shot. Ballhandling, possibly, so he cane lead breaks and get to the rim on his own.

5.After a long wait Orlando Sanchez is finally cleared to play for St. John’s. What do you expect out of the former JuCo star?

Quinn: For those unfamiliar with the Sanchez eligibility case that was resolved in February, this was a serious matter. The NCAA kept the talented Dominican forward off the floor in 2012-13 for a 3:38 stint Sanchez played in one game for the Dominican national team. After months of uncertainty and waiting, St. John’s finally brought in the former Associate Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court to fight for another year of eligibility.

Now, the Red Storm could be at an incredible advantage as it suits up the 25 year-old in 2013-14. From all accounts (we haven’t seen him play all that much), Sanchez is a strong and mobile forward who can shoot and even handle the ball. Don’t be surprised if Sanchez makes a serious impact on the team, and perhaps even the landscape of the league, this season.

Norman: As mentioned above – a post scoring presence. A player who can score on the blocks? St. John’s hasn’t seen a reliable one since Justin Burrell – sort of – or Lamont Hamilton.

5a. What impact can the duo of Sanchez and Chris Obepka have for this team?

Quinn: Chris Obekpa was the second-leading shotblocker in America as a freshman a year ago, but struggled to help the team out much on the offensive side. The hope is that he has worked on his footwork in the post, but he really has a long way to go before Lavin can rely on him as an interior scoring threat.

Perhaps this is where Sanchez comes in. If and when Lavin chooses to go with the taller lineup with Obekpa, Sanchez and Sampson on the floor at once, St. John’s can finally have a multifaceted impact in the paint – something they have missed in recent years. CBS’ Jon Rothstein repeatedly calls the Johnnies the deepest and most athletic team in the conference. Maybe now you can see why.

Norman: Hopefully, they can change the team’s tendencies to shoot long jump shots – the least efficient shot in basketball – on offense. Improvement from Obekpa on the boards will go a long way to helping the Johnnies create the league’s best defense, and Sanchez will hopefully help there as well. And if the team chooses to go after offensive boards, both could be highlight-making putback artists.

BONUS: The late Dave Gavitt knew that he could sell the Big East using the personalities of his coaches. How does Coach Lavin fit this persona for the new Big East? What makes you confident this conference will thrive? What are some worries/concerns?

Quinn: When Lavin was hired at St. John’s over three years ago, he immediately injected the program with a unique style. Dating back to his West Coast days and his intermediate television career, Lavin screams “Hollywood” even though his current program is New York-based. Even so, he has embraced the city and his New York lifestyle quite well.

As the Big East begins its new era and its relationship with FOX Sports, Lavin’s persona couldn’t be a better fit during the transition. The new network, headquartered in Los Angeles, has already aired its promotional commerical that actually featured Lavin. He has always been extremely media savvy and an attractive personality for all of the outlets. The Big East and FOX Sports 1 want to develop their brand right away, and Steve Lavin will certainly be a big part of it.

Sure, there are a number of factors, but I believe the Big East will thrive because it is returning to its roots. Gavitt had a basketball-fueled vision, one that parallels the vision of the Catholic 7 and the league’s new leader Val Ackerman. If the Big East is able to maintain its quality on-court brand immediately and get four or five teams into the NCAA Tournament in 2013-14, it will be off and running to another 34 years of basketball excellence.

Norman: Gavitt was a smart man for the time. Now, though, all coaches have top craft a persona. Some are better than others… Lavin has his thing – he’s erudite, sometimes long-winded, loves analogies to get his point across, and is into social media, interactions. I think the conference will be fine in one way or another; fans love these teams, they have cachet. But will it thrive in the sense of being the same level as the ACC? Harder to say. They have personalities and the backing of the media image baker in college sports, ESPN. Can Fox Sports break that hegemony? Can the play and character of the Big East coaches draw attention away from the ESPN leagues…?

…Lots of questions!

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