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Bosco’s Corner: A team in the making at St. John’s

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The game’s result was a forgone conclusion, but it was the little things that made this first night interesting, at least for me.

During the four previous seasons at the Jamaica campus, opening night meant the debut of a blue-chip prospect, starting with Ron Artest, then Erick Barkley, Anthony Glover and last year Omar Cook. Saturday night offered no such prospect, but perhaps the most cohesive unit I have seen to don the Red Storm uniform.

And I haven’t forgotten that three seasons ago St. John’s made it all the way to the Elite Eight or that two years ago the team grabbed the Big East Tournament title. Nor am I claiming that this team will match those lofty accomplishments. But this batch of Red Storm players seems more like a true team than any I can recall.

Maybe it’s because there is no star, no overwhelming personality or talent to cloud my vision or maybe it’s the way the players seem to communicate with one another on the floor. I’m not sure myself. But watching them run up and down the court, it seemed to me that head coach Mike Jarvis might have the surprise team of the Big East on his hands.

It’s way too early for that claim, truly. The team has played one game against a low, Division I program and managed to win by just 17. It was a convincing win, but not a statement of overwhelming power, which is to say, no team in the Big East is quaking in its boots at the prospect of playing the Johnnies just yet.

And I’m sure Jarvis would cringe at the notion that any team he coaches would be considered a “surprise.” As he reminded me a few weeks ago, St. John’s is one of the winningest programs in collegiate basketball history, a team that, until last year, had been to the NCAA Tournament three straight years. No one is going to sleep on St. John’s.

Be that as it may, no one is expecting big things from the team this year either. No longer dependent on young players, this season’s Red Storm has a nice mix of upper and under classmen, but is by and large a veteran team.

The new faces include junior Marcus Hatten, the team’s point guard, in his first year with St. John’s and a transfer student from Tallahassee Community College. Eric King, out of Brooklyn’s Lincoln High School and back-up point guard Tristan Smith are the team’s two freshman faces expected to make an impact.

These three players add to a team that is largely the same since last year, minus Cook, who left to pursue professional aspirations, and Reggie Jessie, who graduated. And what was made clear Saturday was that Jarvis and Co. did not try to replace any parts in the off-season, but simply added interchangeable parts.

Stony Brook coach Nick Macarchuk said it perfectly after his team’s loss Saturday night. St. John’s is the Noah’s Arc of the Big East with two players at every position, something they surely didn’t have a season ago, at least not like this.

With Hatten and Smith at the point, the No. 2 slot belongs to Willie Shaw and Sharif Fordham with a sprinkling of Hatten when Jarvis feels like letting the player expected to do the bulk of the scoring run free. Shaw is a shooter, Fordham, a defensive specialist who often times plays much bigger than his size when guarding the ball.

At the small forward spot there is Alpha Bangura and King. Bangura, a junior, is a slasher with a decent midrange jump shot, while King seems better suited around the basket, battling for rebounds and putbacks. They offer dimension at one position.

The swingman seems to be Kyle Cuffe, who is a potent scorer and can easily play small or power forward. But with Glover and Donald Emanuel expected to get a lot of minutes at the No. 4 slot, Cuffe’s role seems less defined, but he will still get plenty of minutes.

The center position is left to the remarkably improved Abe Keita and the still emerging Mohammed Diakite. Keita reminds me somewhat of former Seton Hall standout Samuel Dalembert with his ability to swat shots away while camped under the basket. His offense is his weak point, but Jarvis does not have him out there to score points.

Diakite, if motivated, can easily match Keita’s play, but it is Keita who has the edge so far.

As a unit, this group seemed more cohesive than those of years past, dependent on one player to elevate them. With this team, mass substitutions were made consistently throughout Saturday’s game with hardly any change in the level of play.

All this was done with Hatten having perhaps what will become his worst game of the season. He scored just seven points — all in the first half — and picked up his fourth foul early in the second half. A week before he dropped 27 against the Harlem Globetrotters.

I just hope when Hatten finds his stroke that this team remains just that, a team. It’s fun to watch them right now. But wins are what counts and if Hatten shoot well, the team will win, chemistry be damned.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

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