The madness of the NCAA tournament never fails to fuel the discussion over which one of our generation’s legendary coaches is the greatest and which superstar player was the most dominant.
We can discuss Kemba Walker’s jump shot or Jim Boeheim’s famous 2-3 zone defense, but at the end of the day, winning is always the defining criteria.
In the 1980s, it was St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca and star player Chris Mullin at the forefront of these arguments. But for the last decade, St. John’s has often been forgotten.
The program that was once a powerhouse has become a perennial underachiever in recent years, and the Red Storm’s recent run of disappointing seasons is not helping the school’s shrinking national notoriety when it comes to basketball.
This season could have helped swing the school’s momentum back towards being a program to be reckoned with. After all, the dynamic duo of D’Angelo Harrison and JaKarr Sampson were returning for their junior and sophomore seasons, respectively, and coach Steve Lavin had successfully recruited Rysheed Jordan, a do-it-all guard from Philadelphia, to join the program.
And early into this season’s schedule, the Johnnies looked like a team that could make noise in the postseason. They won four of the first five games and sat at 9-3 through their first 12 contests, with two losses being tight ones to Syracuse and Wisconsin.
Harrison, who was suspended for the last few games of 2012 for his poor attitude, had turned the page and proved to be one of the more elite scorers in the Big East conference.
Sampson was consistently producing on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, while Jordan was proving to be a reliable piece of the puzzle despite being just a freshman as well.
But when I look back on the year and wonder why St. John’s failed to make the NCAA tournament for the third straight season, the ugly two-week stretch of basketball in early January sticks out as the reason why.
The Red Storm dropped five straight games between New Year’s Eve and Jan. 16, including a blowout 77-60 loss to Georgetown, where the Johnnies found themselves down by 30 in the second half, and a heartbreaking 84-83 loss in double overtime to eventual Big East tournament champion Providence.
Despite the Red Storm’s 10-8 finish against league opponents, the hole they dug for themselves proved to be too big to climb out of and into the NCAA tournament.
Give the Red Storm credit for trying to right the ship, though. They ripped off nine wins in 10 games from Jan. 18 to Feb. 18, knocking off powerful Creighton twice in the process. But consecutive backbreaking losses to Villanova and Xavier in late February and a loss to Providence in the first round of the Big East tournament effectively killed the Red Storm’s hopes of competing for a title.
An inexcusable loss in the first round of the NIT last week aside, 2013-14 can be viewed as a successful one for important players like Harrison and Jordan. Harrison averaged 17.5 points and five rebounds per game while shooting a solid 37 percent from three-point range. His play and his attitude took a tremendous step up this season, and it would be fair to expect an even better senior year from him.
Despite his lack of gaudy statistics, Jordan proved, especially towards the end of the season, that he’s capable of being a vital piece to a team desperate for a reliable point guard.
Sampson won’t be there to catch passes from Jordan, however, as the sophomore announced Tuesday he will leave school to enter the NBA Draft in June.
I can’t fault him for chasing his dream of playing in the NBA and earning those big pay checks, but the idea of him being a first or even early second round pick (and earning the money and playing time along with being picked that high) is lunacy to me. While he was a fine player in Lavin’s system, Sampson could have used at least one more year of fine-tuning at St. John’s and entered the 2015 or 2016 draft with sharper skills and maybe some postseason success.
A Red Storm team without Sampson suddenly has a glaring hole that the stabilizing sophomore once filled. Lavin hasn’t signed a talented recruit yet and there appear to be no effective internal solutions.
Lavin hinted at using a more guard-oriented system next year, and with its two best players being guards, it may just work.
As the basketball season ends, I want to thank everyone who followed along with me this winter. I’ll see you all in October for another year of St. John’s hoops!