St. John's University point guard Erick Barkley took the floor at Madison Square Garden Saturday to a standing ovation. It was the first action the Christ the King alum had seen since his two-game suspension by the NCAA and the Red Storm faithful let him know just how they felt about his return.
And Barkley responded in kind, hitting two key three-pointers down the stretch of his team's nailbiting 78-75 win over the Villanova Wildcats.
"I was trying to make it like any other game," Barkley said. "It felt good just knowing I was going to play. The situation helped me grow up quicker and made me more mature."
The "situation" started when Barkley was "reluctantly" declared ineligible by St. John's prior to the team's game against Boston College "under strong protest," with the school citing different interpretations of the rules that applied to the case.
According to a source close to the St. John's basketball program, the NCAA rule in question is 188.8.131.52.6, which states that a student-athlete cannot receive any benefit that is considered preferential regarding a non-athlete.
The source said Barkley swapped a late model Jeep Cherokee SUV for an older model Ford Explorer SUV with a longtime family friend, who also coached Barkley during the summer at the Rucker League.
Barkley confirmed as much Saturday, after the NCAA's Division I Subcommittee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement granted the university's appeal to reinstate Barkley immediately Thursday.
"The university is pleased with the subcommittee's decision and appreciates its members' understanding of the case," said Edward J. Manetta Jr., associate vice president and director of athletics in a statement last week. "Erick has shown a tremendous amount of character through this process and we are happy for him."
St. John's vehemently disagreed with the NCAA's interpretation of the rule Barkley was suspected of violating, prompting a heated press conference following the team's one-point win over Boston College on Saturday, Feb. 5.
At the conference, head coach Mike Jarvis lambasted the organization and its process of finding athletes "guilty until proven innocent."
The NCAA originally declared Barkley ineligible for three games on Tuesday, Feb. 8, prompting St. John's immediate appeal to the organization's Division I Subcommittee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement.
In his absence, the Red Storm won two Big East games, including its 59-58 win over the Eagles and a 15-point victory at Providence.
In his return, Barkley shot just 6-for-16 from the field, finishing with 16 points, seven assists and seven steals with three turnovers.
Barkley figures to play a major role for the team down the stretch of the season when the Red Storm goes up against Syracuse, Connecticut, Duke, Seton Hall and Miami.
"I don't think I did anything wrong," Barkley said. "This experience hurt me so much that it got to the point where I didn't want to practice. It hurts that people won't listen to my part of the story; they'll just assume I did something wrong."
Judging by the reception he received at Madison Square Garden Saturday, public opinion is the least of Barkley's worries.
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