Monday I attended the Red Storm's media day, hoping to catch a glimpse of the new team in red and white, a team so drastically different from last year's as to boggle the mind, yet a team many experts are expecting a lot from.
St. John's has been ranked No. 30 or higher by a bevy of national magazines and Internet sites, despite the fact that the team's three top scorers from a season ago - Erick Barkley, Lavor Postell and Bootsy Thornton - have all said goodbye to Alumni Hall and the Jamaica campus.
So what gives? Is the Red Storm a team to contend with this season or are they just another pretender to the throne, a team that overachieved last year in winning the Big East championship and will come crashing down to reality in the 2000-2001 campaign?
Like I said, patience.
Head coach Mike Jarvis is nothing if he is not meticulous and careful, a coach who prides himself on the ability to take whatever ammunition he has, be it outside shooting, speed or size, and make the most of it. He has never had a losing season in his Division I coaching career and he has no plans to start now.
Jarvis balked at an offer from Michael Jordan to coach the Washington Wizards after leading the Johnnies to their third straight NCAA Tournament in March, opting instead to come back to Queens and give it a go with a young, inexperienced team.
What the team lacked last year was size. More often than not 6-foot-6 forward Anthony Glover was given the unenviable task of battling it out under the boards with much taller opposing centers, something at which he was surprisingly successful, using strength and speed to cancel out his height disadvantage.
Luckily Glover will not have to do a lot more of that this year, thanks to the arrival of several big men to the fold, including 6-foot-11 Mohamed Diakite, 6-foot-9 Kyle Cuffe, 6-foot-9 Abe Keita and 7-foot-4 "project" Curtis Johnson. Also back is 6-foot-9 junior Donald Emanuel.
Obviously with a front line like that St. John's will not be at a size disadvantage this season, against just about any team in the college ranks and possibly a few pro teams.
The starting small forward slot will most likely be occupied by the team's lone senior Reggie Jessie, a Queensbridge native out of Bishop Loughlin High School. Jessie showed flashes of brilliance last year and was considered the best passer on the team, a forward who could also play the point. Jack Wolfinger, who was not cleared by NCAA last year, will also see time at the No. 3 slot and could offer some inside help with his 6-foot-11 frame.
With Barkley, Thornton and sixth man Chudney Gray gone, the backcourt offers a whole new look for the Red Storm. The No. 2 slot will probably belong to Alpha Bangura, a transfer from Monmouth who has been in the school for a year and is already familiar with the team, giving him an edge over 6-foot-5 Willie Shaw, out of JFK.
At the point guard position will be McDonald's All-American and Christ the King alum Omar Cook. Cook was one of the most sought-after point guards in the nation last year and will take over for Barkley, another for CK Royal.
Cook's transition to floor general will be the most crucial for Jarvis and Co. this year. Barkley's departure after just two seasons has left a massive void which Cook must immediately fill if St. John's is to contend for the Big East crown this year.
As a high school star for Bob Oliva, Cook was one of three New York point guards to commit to Big East schools - St. John's Prep's Taliek Brown is at Connecticut and Rice's Andre Barrett is at Seton Hall - and opinions are split on which team got the best. All three are replacing quality players, as Brown takes over for Khalid El-Amin and Barrett for Shaheen Holloway, but Cook may have the toughest time of all.
With so many new players and no true back-up - Jessie and newcomer Sharif Fordham - Cook will have to carry the load and work through his freshman mistakes if the Johnnies are to stand a chance this year.
Even so, Jarvis has proven he knows how to win, no matter who he has on the floor. I think with him at the helm, St. John's has a more than realistic shot at making it back to the NCAA Tournament. That he has more than enough talent to do it almost cinches it.
In many ways this team has attributes that last year's did not, including size and most certainly bench strength. With so many talented reserves, Jarvis will certainly not find himself having to play walk-ons because some of his starters got into foul trouble, something he did have to do last year.
There is not a lot of time to learn, however. The team has one exhibition against Double Pump Friday before kicking off the season against Kentucky in the Coaches vs. Cancer Ikon Classic Field. The Red Storm will play either UCLA or Kansas in their second game.
But no matter how the team fairs early, it will take some time before we really know what this squad can do.
©2000 Community News Group
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