It was a disappointing New Year's Eve for St. John's, who spent the final hours of 2011 wondering what went wrong in the 83-69 defeat at the hands of the UConn Huskies in Hartford.
The Johnnies closed a calendar year which had brought the program its first NCAA Tournament berth in nine years with a loss. They endured a double-digit deficit for the final 25 minutes. They watched their three-game winning streak wither away against the size, strength, and quickness of the defending national champions.
But beyond all of the missed shots and effortless dunks allowed, the Red Storm has some things to be proud of and certainly others to build from. Much like we did after the loss to Kentucky in early December, we take a look at some positives.
More, below the fold.
Ever since the first day of practice in mid-October, St. John's has been a work-in-progress. At Media Day in early November, D`Angelo Harrison gave the team that characterization. Almost two months later, stand-in head coach Mike Dunlap is saying the same thing.
Only now, the Johnnies are much further along in the process of growth.
"We have gotten better since the Kentucky game, but clearly we have several steps to take," Dunlap mentioned. "Mentally, we are starting to play with more togetherness. I don't know if we had that cohesiveness then."
They pushed until the buzzer. Literally. Despite falling behind UConn by 23 points with just over 7 minutes to play, St. John's never quit. The way the Huskies were hitting shots and dominating on both sides of the ball, the game could have really gotten away in embarrassing fashion. Instead, by the 4:00 mark, a 12-1 run had brought the Johnnies within 12 and had instilled the slightest amount of doubt into the XL Center crowd.
"This game could have really gotten away from us," Dunlap said afterwards. "The did get some dunks, but we didn't overreact to it."
For such a young and still inexperienced group, St. John's did exhibit impressive poise. Sure, there are still instances of ill-advised decisions, lack of execution, and even bouts of frustration. That's going to happen. But they are proving, much like the team of last year's graduating class always did, that they aren't willing to back down. They wouldn't even let UConn dribble out the clock in the final 15 seconds.
You must protect this rock. St. John's is operating without a true point guard, almost in an assist-by-committee system. With that said, one would expect a team going through something like that to struggle in the turnover department. On Saturday against the lengthy Huskies, the Red Storm only gave the ball up 7 times in total - 3 in the first half, 4 in the second. If they are able to have a turnover margin of +8 in more games, it will allow them to control the pace in games.
The hope is that both Phil Greene and D`Angelo Harrison are becoming more comfortable handling the ball and running the half-court offense. In its first 12 games of the season, St. John's averaged just under 14 turnovers per game. The fact that they were able to essentially cut that in half against a defensively active team is a good sign.
Harkless is increasingly aggressive and confident. Since the Fordham game two weeks ago, Moe Harkless' game has been much improved. Nurideen Lindsey's departure has allowed for Harkless to create with the ball in his hands more, and he has taken advantage. One of the Johnnies' most consistent offensive threats, the young forward is beginning to show all of that potential that was talked about during his recruitment.
It was clear that Harkless was not happy about the outcome of Saturday's game. Obviously, no one is going to feel good about a loss; a defeat is a defeat. Before he signed with Steve Lavin and St. John's, the Queens native had verbally committed to Jim Calhoun and UConn. It is likely that Harkless had some extra motivation in mind going in, and the result didn't agree with his plans. Harkless is a true competitor.
God'sgift was visible against Connecticut's size. Achiuwa had a respectable game, in terms of points scored, on Saturday. Though his rebound total (5) probably doesn't meet the team's needs, especially when he's playing in the paint for 36 minutes, he did contribute. In the team's first two games against major conference opponents in the 2k Sports Classic, Achiuwa couldn't get anything going offensively.
Against an overbearing front line in Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi, Gift was aggressive and looked for his opportunities as a face-up forward. Even if he isn't going to convert many field goals, you'd like him to at least get to the line. Gift scored 8 of his 16 points from the charity stripe.
The defensive specialist continues to go under the radar - offensively. Sir`Dominic Pointer is still searching for some level of consistency on the offensive side of the ball, but he has shown that he is capable of making his presence felt. In getting to his 14 points (a career high), Pointer was 6-9 from the field. He makes good decisions, which allows him to be relatively efficient. It may not be long until Mike Dunlap asks Pointer to make more decisions.
Everyone will remember the two vicious slams (one on a drive and the other on an immediate put-back), but he also knocked down a three-pointer. It still remains to be seen if Pointer's offensive flashes of brilliance are a small sample of something larger or a product of careful choices. Either way, St. John's fans would love to find out.
The team's Big East education continues tomorrow against the Louisville Cardinals in Madison Square Garden.
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