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Bosco’s Corner: SJU shaky in holiday tournament

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One week before the start of the Big East season, the St. John’s University men’s basketball team dropped its third consecutive game, leaving many to speculate about exactly what this team is capable of in the 2002-2003 season.

In truth, that question has been asked by Red Storm faithful since the team first took the floor against Stony Brook in the preseason opener more than a month ago. For while St. John’s defeated its first five opponents, the team was supposed to — something head coach Mike Jarvis was quick to point out at the time.

But even those early games were much closer than most of us on press row believed they would be. St. John’s seemingly had every advantage against Stony Brook, but still had to struggle to a 68-57 win on Nov. 26.

They played better, but not by much in defeating Fairfield in their second game, a 81-68 win, before seeming to hit their stride with three 20-point or better wins in a row against Fordham (81-58), St. Francis (80-58) and Hofstra (84-59).

In those early games the team’s flaws were just as present as they were Friday night against a supposedly inferior Manhattan team that pulled off the upset for the second year in a row, beating St. John’s at the annual Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden, 85-72.

It would be easy to forgive the Johnnies’ first loss of the season, an 84-72 defeat to the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest on Dec. 21, but to lose to Manhattan in consecutive seasons in identical settings is not.

Going into action this weekend, most every St. John’s fan was looking forward to a date against North Carolina Saturday in the championship game. And while the Red Storm and Tar Heels did hook up, it was in the consolation game, as the No. 22-ranked ACC team dropped a shocking decision to the Iona Gaels Friday.

And maybe the loss by North Carolina played a part in the Red Storm’s loss later that evening. St. John’s took the court knowing that beating Manhattan meant no date with North Carolina, but another evening against an area opponent that was supposed to be a cut below.

Star guard Marcus Hatten all but admitted to not showing up against the Jaspers, saying afterward that the emotion just wasn’t there and that he was just “going through the motions.”

Those words shocked me. Hatten is the type of player that I thought was emotion-proof. His ability to sink a basket from just about anywhere on the court is something that has helped St. John’s out of countless jams, but against Manhattan he looked disinterested, and his shooting percentage for the game (5-for-19) showed it.

The Manhattan game also saw Jarvis switch up the lineup for the first time, sitting junior Andre Stanley — a walk-on last year who played himself into the starting lineup — in favor of sophomore Eric King.

That move seemed to have been a smart one. Even though Stanley has put up some decent numbers, including leading the team in assists through the first five games, he was not a scoring threat. King, on the other hand, has shown the ability to get to the basket and score, as well as being a ferocious rebounder, particularly on the offensive end.

King’s presence helped St. John’s to a 45-35 rebounding edge against Manhattan, 25-9 on the offensive glass. Those are numbers most teams are not used to seeing when they are on the losing end of a decision. Offensive rebounds mean more offensive opportunities, but when you can’t hit water falling out of a boat, miss close to half of your 26 free throw attempts and your idea of playing defense is getting out of the way of your opponent, you are going to lose.

If the St. John’s players believe they can just shake off the loss to Manhattan, they are fooling themselves. It’s losses like that one that make St. John’s a perpetual bubble team at the end of the season. There is no excuse for not showing up to play to win. And at no time should a player who is the co-captain of a team say he was just “going through the motions,” no matter how talented he is.

If St. John’s has 19 wins at the end of the regular season, the team can look back on Dec. 27 for the 20th win that might have guaranteed admission to the NCAA Tournament. Every game counts. If you play like one doesn’t, it will come back to haunt you, no doubt about it. It is almost a sports certainty.

To their credit, the Red Storm players bounced back and played a much better game against North Carolina Saturday in the consolation game. Though the game was still a loss, the Red Storm players can take solace in the fact that they were very much in the game throughout and, maybe if they hit a couple of free throws now and then, might have actually been on the winning end of the 63-59 final, not the losing end.

I still believe this season can be salvaged, but the St. John’s players and coach Jarvis have a lot of work ahead of them. First, the team has to play with emotion every time out. Second, they have to hit their free throws and third, they have to play defense every trip down the floor.

I know Hatten is a capable and special player. But if he plays flat, so does the rest of the team. He can’t afford a night off and neither can his teammates. A few more siestas and St. John’s can say adios to the NCAA Tournament and hola to the NIT.

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

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