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Game #1: Long Island Blackbirds vs. St. John's

This Friday, all of the offseason training, speculation, and worrying takes a back seat to the opening game of the 2008-2009 season for the St. John's men's basketball program in the refurbished on-campus Carnesecca Arena.

For a Red Storm team that went 11-19 with a team filled with freshmen, the new season cannot come soon enough. The Red Storm have been counted out in preseason polls; many fans anticipate a long year.

But anything can happen when the ball hits the hardwood and the numbers on the scoreboard are entered into the NCAA records.

The opening game is against Long Island University; I love seeing a couple of storied programs get together, even if one school is struggling to maintain its status in NY (St. John's), and the other lost the NYC status long ago (LIU). So here's your history lesson: did you know that the Clair Bee coached 1936 LIU team, favored to represent the US in the Olympics that year, decided to boycott the trials rather than play in Nazi Germany?

LIU 1936 Basketball teamA number of the Blackbird players were Jewish, and felt that the US should boycott the games. Others refused to go to the trials or the games, but most had reasons other than the persecution of German Jews. It's rare, and laudable, when players choose to highlight large wrongs by giving up what would have been a great professional opportunity (before the NBA and TV coverage of basketball).

(photo courtesy of US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Back to the basketball:

This season the Red Storm have to integrate the scoring of Anthony Mason Jr., who hopes to be more effective and aggressive this year, with the talents of promising sophomores like Justin Burrell, Malik Boothe, and DJ Kennedy. Last year’s team often seemed out of sync, and allergic to scoring. The opening game against the Long Island University Blackbirds is the first step to gaining renewed flow and focus.

Obviously, St. John’s is expected to beat the Northeast Conference squad. But the keys to the game are not just the victory; it is in showing the fans what has changed about the team. Will they play faster? Will they be more effective on offense? Will there be more offensive flow? Can they defend without fouling? All of which lead to the same questions:

Have the Red Storm Improved?

In this game there are previous performances to base some of the keys on – last year’s 68-56 win over the Blackbirds at Carnesecca, which featured the season’s first appearance of Anthony Mason Jr., who then injured his ankle again. The game was a win. But the contest highlighted some painful, bricklayer outside shooting. The Storm shot 41% from the field and 17% from the 3-point range.

And the young players looked young in their fourth game; Horne, in particular, had a poor game, with a team-leading 5 turnovers, 2-8 shooting. Burrell had a double double but also had 4 turnovers and 4 fouls. Kennedy posted one of his best stat lines – 5/11 (1/3 from 3-pt), 7/8 FT, 9 rebounds (4 offensive), 5 steals, 1 block, 1 TO.

Last year’s game was a foul fest for the Storm. The 4 foul crew: Burrell, Coker (in 8! minutes), Lawrence, Boothe. Seeing how often LIU guards Wisseh and Allen got to the line, there might have been a little containment problem; hopefully the team's defense has tightened up since.

St. John’s (0-0)

St John's Red Storm logoCoach Norm Roberts has stated that he plans to go with Sean Evans in the starting lineup, so I will list him there. Dele Coker should get some run, since the coach has claimed he’s much improved. The fans hope to see 7’1" center Phil Wait, as well, but the important thing in this game is to establish Evans and Coker. Justin Burrell needs to show the passion of early last season, and the ability to pass out of double-teams, and the ability to be a big-time scorer. Rob Thomas should get a little time as well.

Offensively, I expect to see the staff establish Mason and Burrell as an inside/ outside tandem against the small LIU team, and put the players in a position to draw fouls.
The guards will get some run; Boothe and Horne will show how they have improved their scoring over the summer, and Kennedy will have his scoring opportunities.

The ability of those guards – and the newcomers TyShwan Edmondson and Quincy Roberts – will determine whether this is one of those close games that makes the fans cover their eyes, or the game that sparks hope in students and longtime fans alike.

3 PG Malik Boothe 5’9" 180 lbs/ Sophomore/ 3.0 ppg/ 2.5 apg/ 1.6 ast-to ratio; 30% fg, 16% 3pt

1 G/F DJ Kennedy 6’6" 210 lbs/ Sophomore/ 7.8 ppg/ 5.8 rpg/ 1.2 spg; 45% fg, 33% 3 pt

2 SF Anthony Mason 6’7" 210 lbs/ Senior/ 14 ppg/ 4.4 rpg/ 2.3 apg; 42% fg, 38% 3 pt

24 F Justin Burrell 6’8" 240 lbs / Sophomore/ 10.8 ppg/ 5.9 rpg/ .2 ast-to ratio; 43% fg, 74% ft

5 F Sean Evans 6’8" 250 lbs/ Sophomore/ 3.1 ppg/ 2.5 rpg; 43% fg, 35% ft

LIU (0-0)

Long Island University logoThe Long Island University (LIU) Blackbirds feature 4 returning starters, and a fifth player who was an NEC all-Rookie team member in Kyle Johnson. In the team’s exhibition game, Johnson went off for 18 points in a row, and can shoot from outside. Jaytornah Wisseh is a quick veteran scoring point guard who played credibly last year against St. John’s, and is a do-it-all kind of player for the Blackbirds. Aurimas Adomatis didn’t play a lot last year, but is slated to start; he, like Ron Manigault, is good on the offensive glass.

The team is small, and will look to get scoring from the guards. St. John’s will want to cover and harass them throughout the game. It would be nice to also see the team foul out the limited height that the Blackbirds have as they are establishing the forwards.

22 PG Jaytornah Wisseh 6’1" 180 lbs/ Junior/ 15.8 ppg/ 4.8 rpg/ 5.1 apg/ 1.6 assist/to ratio. 44% fg%; 31% 3 pt

24 G David Hicks 6’1" 195 lbs/ Sophomore/ 8 ppg/ 3.2 rpg/ 1 spg. 32% fg%

00 G Kyle Johnson 6’4" 200 lbs/ Sophomore/ 10.3 ppg/ 3.9 rpg/ .48 assist/to ratio. 39% fg%; 39% 3pt

1 F Ron Manigault 6’4" 210 lbs/ Senior/ 5 ppg/ 5.6 rpg/ 43% fg; 54% ft

33 C Aurimas Adomatis 6’9" 235 lbs/ Junior/ 3.9 ppg/ 3 rpg/ 44% fg

Keys to the Game

Smother and Steal. The Red Storm needs to establish tenacious guard play early. Every low-major wants to beat a major-conference foe and show their mettle; St. John’s has to build their own confidence by putting that notion out of reach early, with suffocating man defense and a few thefts of the ball.

New Year, New Flow. The team needs to establish a style of play, and for once look like a team that isn’t making up offensive moves as they go along. Whether they run or not, the Red Storm have to move the ball around crisply, getting the rock to the main threats and working the ball inside and out with ease and natural-looking speed. Good passes to players in position should mean easier scoring and "and-1" opportunities. Lost in the agonizingly bad offense last year was the fact that the team actually got to the free throw line a fair amount. Sending the other team to the line and only hitting 66% of the free throw attempts will mitigate the effects of going to the line, of course.

Bully Sticks. The team should be able to have their way inside, if the ball gets there; when the slam dunk is there, show off a little, use some force. And on defense, Coker, Burrell, and Evans need to throw their weight around and become serious problems for the undersized LIU interior.

So, who’s the Shooter? Less important to winning, but important for the future of the team is establishing who can do what. The team needs to see their roles on the court. Can Edmondson be a backup point guard? Who will be the spot-up shooter? Can Paris get his offense off the dribble? Will Rob Thomas contribute?

A Comfortable Cushion. Supposedly the new seats at Carnesecca are more comfortable; they should be matched with a nice cushion for the Red Storm. That way, the freshmen can get some run and show what they have. Coach Roberts could use more scorers on the court, and giving the newcomers some good run in a blowout goes a ways to showing how they can help the team.

Rob Thomas St. John's Red Storm