A Salute to the Johnnies
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by Matt Casey
Saturday afternoon at The Garden, St. John's became the latest team to expose Duke's difficulty in dealing with the press. But most teams have trouble with the Johnnies' high-octane pressure. It's was a defining characteristic of great Red Storm teams of the past, and it will be the most essential element in making St. John's matter again.
Frantic defense was the forte of St. John's Elite Eight run in '99 and their Big East Championship the following year. The 2005 edition plays with the same passion. Problem is, the talent level isn't close. They don't have a smooth shooter like Bootsy Thornton, no one with the all-around game of Ron Artest.
But a lot of what they do reminds you of the good times. Their tenacity, and ferociousness. Their relentless scrappiness. Their resolve.
Perhaps that's the most intriguing aspect of St. John's. Last year's messes made the chaos rampant in the '86 Mets locker room seem tame. Head coach Mike Jarvis was canned. Players were arrested on drug charges. Another player assaulted a member of the women's swim team. And then the granddaddy: getting busted with a hooker after a road loss in Pittsburgh. With half the team either dismissed or suspended, the stiffs on the end of the bench - who are there to give each other awkward high fives, stand up with raised arms when someone takes a three, and get yelled at by the coach when someone on the floor screws up - were not only seeing significant minutes, they were starting.
Even though several of their key contributors weren't around for last year's debacle - three starters are freshmen - it doesn't diminish how admirably the team has responded to adversity. Don't underestimate how much trouble they were in. With the probation rendered from the school and the NCAA, the program was headed for the same fate as Vanilla Ice, Sammy Sosa's biceps, and Al Pacino's mind. Suppose guys like Darryl Hill and Lamont Hamilton transferred, a dirty coach came in, and they won five games while being blown out of every Big East battle. You'd never hear from the school again - except when Mike Francesa boasts about being the keynote speaker at alumni functions.
Instead, the season has provided some pleasant moments. 9-17 will, in all probability, wind up 9-18, but no one's making a fuss that the losses double the wins. They beat Virginia Tech and NC State, and tourney-bound Big East foes Pitt and Georgetown. They took West Virginia, Notre Dame, and Seton Hall to the buzzer.
Saturday's valiant effort against Duke was the most recent evidence of the fortitude of the Johnnies. Most write-ups highlighted Duke's poor offensive showing as the lead story. But that was more the doing of the St. John's D than the absence of Sean Dockery. With seven minutes left, Duke was reeling. At the four minute mark, it was still a game. The Johnnies were diving for loose balls, making steals, and deflecting passes. If they had been better on the offensive glass - odd, considering that's a strong point of theirs and a weakness of the Devils - who knows how much closer it would have been?
And it's not as if they were buoyed by a raucous home crowd. The Garden's allegiance was split, and if anything, there were more Duke fans.
It's also no coincidence that Duke's two best players, JJ Redick and Shelden Williams, both had their worst games of the season. Credit that to the two men defending them: Darryl Hill and Lamont Hamilton. Hill was in Redick's grill all afternoon, even picking him clean in the backcourt for a lay-up at one point. Although it wasn't his day offensively, he's still their top talent, as evidenced by his 33-point outburst Wednesday against Syracuse. Hamilton got the better of Williams, a guy who regularly averages a double-double. But by aggressively fronting him, Hamilton frustrated Williams by denying the entry pass. And on the other end, Hamilton wasn't intimidated by Williams' "Landlord" status, netting a team-high 15 points.
More importantly, these two have shown some character. Hill chose to stick around rather than transfer to a more stable program. And it doesn't appear as if he'll catch the Omar Cook Delusions of Grandeur and flee to the NBA long before he's ready. After having his worst performance of the year against Syracuse, Hamilton showed some mental resolve and responded well the next game against the Blue Devils.
At the very least, the H-boys - both sophomores in terms of eligibility - are solid enough to build the team around. But right now, the ability just isn't there. If you've ever seen the kid play hoops in Schatt's Last Shot, you have an idea of how the Johnnies shoot the rock. That's because they literally treat it like a rock, apparently trying to become the first humans to dent the backboard with a basketball. They didn't appear to have any offensive sets, no one really ever thought about shooting from the outside, and far too many times a guard would drive the side of the lane and just fire an over-the-shoulder pass to the middle in hopes it would end up in the right set of hands.
Norm Roberts has done a commendable job so far of keeping his team competitive. Now he must build on this momentum. The word is that Roberts has numerous recruiting contacts, but let's not kid ourselves. I don't want to say that it's hard to get kids to play at St. John's, but learning Sanskrit is easier. Until they upgrade the basketball facilities and more students live on campus, the school will always be a tough sell. The big-time blue chippers won't be rushing to play at Alumni Hall while attending a commuter school in the middle of Queens.
What they need is a scaled-down version of Duke's recruiting style. Sure, Coach K can reel in a handful of McDonald's All-Americans, but he goes after the ones who fit into the system. Save a couple players here and there, he gets guys who are concerned about winning, not if they get their 25-a-night.
The Johnnies can't match that product, but they can copy the model. They should go hard after the athletic New York City guys who aren't polished enough to land at a national power. Recruit guys who can ball but may be overlooked because they're undersized. Bring in some talented JUCO kids, just not the ones with a rap sheet for grand theft auto and/or battered girlfriends. This narrows the pool considerably - by about 90% - but no one said this would be easy.
The objective this year was to earn back respectability and stay out of trouble. Except for the dismissal of a player for a fudged transcript, they've accomplished those goals. With no other expectations to speak of, St. John's has been forced to aim for and deal with moral victories. Many athletes don't like to settle for that, and in a market like New York neither do fans or the media. But in the case of this St. John's team, there's room for an exception.