Operation Ray McCallum: Johnnies must limit Detroit star

Mike DiNovo-US PRESSWIRE

St. John's lost to Detroit a year ago, and McCallum was at the center of it all.

The scoreboard read 69-63 and the small, concentrated Calihan Hall crowd went crazy. The home team capped the night that started with the naming of their court after former coach and ESPN color guru Dick Vitale with a flourish, upsetting a Big East team on national television in special throwback uniforms and storming the court.

And as great as it was for Detroit, it was just as bad as it was for St. John's, led by assistant coach Mike Dunlap. The Johnnies were dealing with the uncertainties around the Steve Lavin's second stint away from the team. Three days later, the Storm's starting point guard fled.

The game itself was such a telling presentation. The short-handed Red Storm had so many flaws, some fixable and some entirely unavoidable. If they looked so discombobulated against a mid-major, how were they going to survive in the Big East?

It was the way they let Detroit's star sophomore guard, Ray McCallum Jr., get away that was so head scratching. McCallum, the son of the Titans' head coach, had to have been the first defensive priority.

McCallum scored 21 points, 14 of which in the crunch time of the second half, on 7-12 shooting against the Johnnies a year ago, accounting for over 30% of his team's scoring that night. No one was a bigger contributor to the Red Storm moving under .500 on the season, a loss that proved to be a major turning point.

But it wasn't just McCallum's stellar play that led to the Red Storm's demise. In a game that was there for the taking, St. John's sputtered, looking as inexperienced as they had in their first eight games.

"We didn't shoot the ball well and we could have attacked their zone defense better," Lavin said of the loss to Detroit last December. "It wasn't one of our finer performances of the season."

Fast forward eleven months. On Tuesday, Detroit comes to Carnesecca Arena to open St. John's season, again on national television as part of ESPN's fifth 24 Hours of Hoops Tip-Off extravaganza.

And guess who leading the charge? Yep, you guessed it.

McCallum, now a junior, is expected to be one of the top guards in not only the Horizon League, but in the nation in 2012-13. After the Titans took care of Division II Northern Michigan on Friday, McCallum's next challenge will be in Queens on Tuesday.

Lavin and the young Johnnies understand that Detroit is a legitimate test to begin their journey, and McCallum is one of the most formidable players they will face before the Big East schedule kicks in.

"After our preparation, it's no secret that [Detroit] is an NCAA Tournament team that returns the majority of its roster, including one of the top guards in the country in McCallum," Steve Lavin continued. "So our kids are aware that this is a high-level game to start the season."

Last year, the Red Storm hosted and struggled with other mid-major teams including Northeastern, William & Mary, Lehigh, and Texas Pan-American.

Despite their 3-6 record at the time, Detroit's win over St. John's last year wasn't an aberration. After winning their conference, the Titans earned a 15-seed, and gave eventual national runner-up Kansas a run for their money with surprisingly competitive talent.

"They're quick and athletic. We watched the Kansas/Detroit NCAA game on tape, and there really wasn't a difference in athleticism between the two teams," Lavin mentioned. "Kansas wore them down with their strength and power, but in terms of quickness, length, and athletic ability, Detroit may have even had a little bit of an edge."

Aside from McCallum, Detroit returns three other players - Nick Minnerath, Doug Anderson, and Jason Calliste - who averaged 9.2 points or more last season.

If St. John's plays at a high level on Tuesday, their speed and size will stifle the Titans. As always, their game plan will be heavily concentrated on defense.

And it starts and ends with Ray McCallum.

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