Cook ready to lead new-look Red Storm

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The 6-foot-1 graduate of Christ the King High School is expected to lead the St. John's Red Storm this season, a team with more newcomers than returning players and only one senior in the bunch. But less than two weeks before the team's opening game against perennial powerhouse Kentucky, Cook and the brethren were all about optimism.

"There's a lot of pressure on me but I feel ready," said a relaxed Cook. "I've been ready to play since last year. I'm itching to play."

Cook is one of three New York City point guards - including Seton Hall's Andre Barrett and UConn's Taliek Brown - making their debuts in the Big East this season. Cook, however, has the unenviable task of following Erick Barkley, the current Portland TrailBlazer who also preceded Cook at Christ the King.

But Cook has come to play, evident by some added muscle in his upper body. It's his focus, however, that Cook said will make the transition smoothest.

"You've got to be mentally prepared," Cook said. "It's a whole different type of game. It's not like high school."

Cook comes into St. John's having played with many of the team's members already, including both Jessie and Glover. There are some new faces, however, that Cook has not seen before.

"You know what people can do and what people can't do," he said. "It's just the guys you haven't played with. You have to adjust to them."

Cook may be the most essential cog in a team that is clearly retooling from a year ago. Last year coach Mike Jarvis led a team made up of primarily seven players to the Big East championship and a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

"He's been doing just fine," Jarvis said of Cook. "The minute he plays I think people will understand the reputation he has. He has a great sense of awareness on the court. He's very, very special."

But gone from that close-knit team are four crucial components: Barkley, Lavor Postell, Bootsy Thornton and Chudney Gray. The foursome accounted for almost 70 percent of the team's total points, assists and steals and more than half the rebounds.

Only three players are returning to the fold, lone senior Reggie Jessie and junior forwards Anthony Glover and Donald Emanuel. Jessie and Glover both saw major minutes last year, with Glover the team's leading rebounder, while Emanuel saw spot duty.

"I think we have good chemistry," said the 6-foot-6 Glover, who played most of last year in the paint for the undersized Johnnies, who have since added a host of tall and talented youngsters. "No matter where I go I'm going to play my game."

Many of those new players were brought in to make up for the team's sometimes drastic disadvantage in height last year.

Abe Keita, Mohamed Diakite and Curtis Johnson are all taller than the tallest Red Storm member from last season - the 6-foot-8 Emanuel - while Kyle Cuffe equals him in height. Keita and Diakite - both listed at 6-foot-11 - are African natives who have played some organized ball in the United States, while Johnson, a 7-foot-3 hulking mass of a man, was a late signee of the Red Storm out of Virginia's Ryan Academy.

"It's a little bit hard but we're getting better," said Keita sophomore out of Winchendon Academy in Connecticut. "When the practice is hard, the games are easy. People think we're young, but I think we're going to surprise a lot of people."

"I think the team is good," added Diakite, a freshman out of the famed Montrose Christian basketball program in Maryland. "I'm not nervous."

Blending the veterans and the freshman will be the job of Jarvis and his coaching staff, though Jarvis still was not sure Monday exactly who will play and for how long.

Rounding out the new players are sophomore shooting guard Alpha Bangura, who is anticipated to be the heir apparent to Thornton at the No. 2 guard slot, junior guard Sharif Fordham, who will see time as Cook's back-up and at the 2, Willie Shaw, another 2 guard and sophomore Jack Wolfinger, a 6-foot-11 swingman.

"At this point in time I honestly can't tell you how many are going to play," he said. "We have a lot of size right now. We're going to play the player that plays the biggest. We're going to take advantage of what we have. I expect everyone to step up."

Fans will not have to wait long to see the team put to the test, as the Red Storm opens its season Nov. 9 against Kentucky at Madison Square Garden, following the next day against either UCLA or Kansas.

The schedule is reminiscent of the Johnnies' opening slate in 1998-99, when the Red Storm kicked off their Elite Eight run with heartbreaking losses to Stanford and Purdue. Jarvis said he hopes the first two contests of this season have a different result, but with the same meaning.

"I'd like to believe that it will effect us in a positive way," Jarvis said. "These are the games that I like. I think the team found out a lot about itself [two years ago]. It's a barometer."

St. John's will play an exhibition game against Double Pump Friday at Alumni Hall. Tip-off is 7:30 p.m.

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