Sports

College Basketball Breakdown: Kentucky vs. St. John's

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Steve Lavin’s debut season at St. John’s was more successful than anyone predicted. The Red Storm won 21 games. They tied for third in the Big East conference. They went undefeated in conference play in February. For the first time in a long time, they had Madison Square Garden absolutely hopping for St. John’s basketball. And they made it to the NCAA Tournament.

A year ago, the Johnnies were a veteran bunch. Lavin knew that he would be forced to restock the cupboard. And he did just that. He brought in the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation. They brought in all of the pieces to rebuild quickly.

Still, you had to wonder how quickly the youngsters would pick up the system. Even if they jelled immediately, a drop off from last season’s success was almost expected.

Then St. John’s was forced to overcome a more tedious and personal obstacle. Steve Lavin was to have prostate cancer surgery on October 6th, a mere month before the start of the season.

After missing St. John’s first game, Lavin returned to the sidelines on November 9th to coach back-to-back games against Top 25 opponents in Arizona and Texas A & M. They lost both games, but were competitive in both. After coaching, Lavin felt fatigued and sat out their next contest, a home loss to Northeastern. Lavin, and his doctors, have decided that it is best for him to sit out until he builds his strength back up.

He will not be on the sidelines for Thursday’s contest versus Kentucky. It will mark the third strait game that he has missed and the fourth overall this season.

Here is what Lavin had to say about his decision to return earlier this year. (courtesy of RedStormSports.com)

“I’m cancer free, but now recognize I set myself back with a premature return to the sidelines,” said Lavin. “I was hoping with each subsequent game that my stamina would improve but instead it regressed. It became clear that presently I have not recovered enough from surgery to lead the team through the toil of a game. After consulting with Dr. [Peter T.] Scardino we decided to modify my coaching duties.”

For the youngest team in the country that consists of four freshman, a sophomore and two juniors, playing without their leader on the sidelines could be a very daunting task. Facing the No. 1 team in the country in your first road test of the season, makes it that much more difficult.

Through seven games, the Johnnies are 4-3 with wins over William and Mary, Lehigh, UMBC, and St. Francis (NY). Their losses, as mentioned above, are to Arizona, Texas A&M, and Northeastern.

On Thursday, the Red Storm are likely to start three freshman, a sophomore and a junior. None of which played for St. John’s in last year’s NCAA Tournament run. The stud of the bunch is freshman Moe Harkless (6-8, 208).

Harkless was rated as high as No. 38 by recruiting services and enters the UK game averaging 14.1 points and 6.7 rebounds. The rookie is a complete basketball player. He is very athletic, has the ability to step out and shoot it, and has tremendous length on defense. He averages 1.9 blocks and 1.9 steals per game.

Leading the team in scoring through seveng games is sophomore Nurideen Lindsey (6-3, 182). Lindsey is a transfer from Redlands C.C. in Oklahoma and is averaging a team-high 14.4 points. He also leads the team in assists (25) and steals (14). At 182 pounds, he is able to absorb contact at the rim and has excellent ballhanding, playmaking and scoring abilties.

Second on the team in scoring through seven games is another freshman in D’Angelo Harrison (6-3, 202). Like Harkless, Harrison was a Top 40 recruit according to most recruiting services. He is averaging 14.3 points and is known for his quick first step and his deadly range from deep. He’s 13-for-38 from three-point range this season, and in their win over Northeastern went 4-for-5 from deep, en route to a career high 21 points.

Likely rounding out the starting five will be junior transfer God’sgift Achiuwa (6-8, 236) and freshman Phil Greene (6-2, 180). Yep, God’sgift is his real name. Achiuwa, who played at Erie C.C. (NY) last season, is the fourth member of the Red Storm averaging double figures with 11.3 points and he is second in rebounding with 6.6 per game. He is a bruiser underneath with a lengthy wingspan.

Greene, another highly recruited freshman, ranked just outside of the Top 40 by most recruiting services. He is a deft ballhandler that has the ability to get into the lane and pull up or create shots for others. He is averaging 5.4 points per game.

Also, look for freshman Sir’Dominic Porter (6-5, 196) to contribute for the Johnnies. He is their most highly touted recruit, ranked as high as No. 26 by some recruiting services. He is shooting 60-percent from the floor and after struggling a little early is averaging 9.0 points in his last two games. Lavin and the rest of the staff are expecting big things from Porter this season.

As you can see from all of the freshmen and junior college transfers, this team has zero experience at the Division I level, but they have a ton of talent. Athletically they match up with Kentucky about as closely as you can, so if the Wildcats don’t come to play, they could have some problems. But, you are also talking about a young team that has struggled early and is forced to play without their head coach.

Still, it should be fun to watch and this game will serve as a nice tuneup for the Tar Heels on Saturday.

We wish Steve Lavin the best of luck in his recovery and hope to see him on the sidelines soon. What he has done at St. John’s in just two seasons is pretty remarkable and he deserves to be on the bench.