As if the games themselves weren't arduous enough, St. John's once again is faced with a plethora of challenges.
Fresh off of a demoralizing loss to Northeastern on Saturday, the Red Storm will travel to Lexington to face the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats on Thursday night in the Big East/ SEC Challenge. This match-up has been circled on everyone's calendar since the summer, but the general optimism about the matchup has lost some momentum.
Taking the floor against a John Calipari-coached team at Rupp Arena on national television is an enormously tall order on its own. Steve Lavin's announcement that he will not coach the team for the indefinite future makes it even taller.
More, after the jump.
When St. John's travels to Rupp Arena on Thursday night, it will be the first time the Red Storm has faced the Kentucky Wildcats since their exhilarating 62-61 come-from-behind upset victory in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic on Nov. 9, 2000. Back then, young Omar Cook and sophomore Anthony Glover led the Storm, coached by Mike Jarvis, over Tubby Smith's Keith Bogans/ Saul Smith Wildcats.
Eleven years later, a St. John's upset would be even more unbelievable.
In his third season in Lexington, Kentucky head coach John Calipari has once again assembled one of the most talented groups in the country. Known for their high roster turnover, Calipari has given responsibility to his youthful personnel of freshmen and sophomores - a formula that has worked for him before. The Wildcats have two seniors in their eight-man rotation.
Steve Lavin's Red Storm have a similar youthful look. It's well-documented that this year's St. John's team is the youngest, and thus most inexperienced, team in the nation. Lavin, too, is relying on six first-year players to lead his team throughout a tremendously demanding schedule.
For St. John's to compete and even think about pulling off the unthinkable against the #1 team, scorers Moe Harkless and D`Angelo Harrison will be the ones setting the tone.
"[Our coaching staff] made me real anxious to get here and be able to play in these types of games," the forward remarked on Tuesday.
Moe Harkless has unofficially taken the role as the "face of the program" since his first appearance at Tip-Off in October. Averaging a respectable 14.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in his first seven games, Harkless has become an on-court leader as well.
However, in the loss to Northeastern, Harkless only scored 8 points on 10 shot attempts in 33 minutes. If he is going to be on the floor for that amount of time - which he absolutely will - Harkless will need be more assertive. Though he has been a consistent contributor, the Queens native hasn't been incredibly efficient. He has not yet had a breakout game.
St. John's looks to D'Angelo Harrison for similar production, but in different ways. Characterized by his coaches and teammates as "the best shooter in the country," Harrison will look to hurt the Wildcats from deep.
Though Harrison has averaged 14.3 points (second-highest on the team), he hasn't yet been able to find that necessary consistency in his three-point shot. He has only converted 34% of his long-range attempts, amounting to less than two made from downtown per game; he's mixed very good outside shooting days with ones where he can't find the range.
Would there be a better time than Thursday for D'Angelo to really find his stroke?
The Red Storm will struggle defending Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones in the interior. Those two will have little difficulty scoring against St. John's front line, and the Wildcats won't struggle to find options to get points.
The entire squad needs to be at their sharpest; but Harkless and Harrison will need to be efficient offensively to help St. John's stay close. If they can put up points - or even shoot the Red Storm to an upset win - the many challenges facing the Red Storm over the season will seem that much more surmountable.