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St. John's vs. NJIT season opener preview

The St. John's men's basketball team, fresh off another controversial week, open the season at home against the NJIT Highlanders on Friday night.

Wendell Cruz

Are you ready for the season?

Well, ready or not, here it comes.

The St. John's men's basketball team opens its 2014-2015 campaign on Friday night, taking on the NJIT Highlanders at Carnesecca Arena.

Tipoff for the opener is scheduled for 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on Fox Sports Network.

After a week that included yet another academically ineligible player sidelined for the season - who is appealing the decision - and a loss on the recruiting trail,  the Red Storm are going to need to an exceptionally short memory and an even more exceptional performance from its returning players to open the season with a notch in the win column.

Keep your eyes out for Chris Obekpa, who missed last week's exhibition game against St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Red Storm bench, a group that Steve Lavin may need to use in an effort to keep his players fresh on Friday night.

Point of Attention #1 - Interior Play Needed

Despite the distractions, St. John's needs to find answers in the paint - and get off to quicker starts.

The big distraction: for the second time this season and the fourth time since Steve Lavin took over the program, a St. John's player has been deemed academically ineligible. Even though he is appealing the decision, Delarosa is essentially unavailable until his situation is resolved.

Freshman Adonis DeLaRosa, one of the Red Storm's biggest - literally and metaphorically - recruits this offseason was deemed ineligible by the NCAA on Tuesday.

"Adonis is currently attending his classes and working with the institution to gain clarity on his eligibility status," Lavin said in a tweet on Tuesday night.

DeLaRosa did not play in the Storm's exhibition game against Humboldt State but did notch 15 minutes in last week's exhibition against St. Thomas Aquinas. He looked like a viable option for St. John's in an already-wafer-thin frontcourt.

Not having the big center is another major blow to the Red Storm who lost big-man Keith Thomas when he was deemed ineligible after his, and other student-athlete's transcripts, were brought into question following a fraud scandal at Westchester Community College.

Of course, Obekpa, back from the ankle injury that kept him sidelined last weekend, ensures St. John's won't have to resort to the five-guard lineup it used in the final exhibition game.

But without those big men to help, the pressure, once again, is going to be on Obekpa to be a force under the hoop but he's going to need some help. That's going to have to come from Sir`Dominic Pointer and Phil Greene.

Point of Attention #2 - Quicker Starts

The key is to get a quick start, no matter who's on the court.

If the Storm are going to play small, and they may have to, they're going to have to grab control quickly and hold onto it; just like rebounds.

"It's still a work in progress," Pointer said after last week's game against St. Thomas Aquinas. "Right now we had a good team and came back, but you can't always come back. We have to work on it and it is still the beginning of the season. By the third or fourth game, we should be good. It's mostly because we are taking too many jump shots, we have to get in the paint in the beginning of the game."

At St. John's media day, D`Angelo Harrison talked about the importance of the season opener and getting off to a good start. "7 o'clock November 14, is so important as our first home game," Harrison said. "If we take care of business like we are supposed to then people will know were serious. We have to take [NJIT] serious this year."

Scouting NJIT

The Highlanders are a fascinating team and not simply because their mascot is a subset of Scottish culture.

Following a shift to Division I in 2009, NJIT floundered in the Great West conference, winning just five games in its first two years in the league.

Then 2012-2013 happened.

The Highlanders won the GWC regular season championship and posted one of its best-ever seasons at any level.
Then, there was last year.

The Great West folded as conference realignment moved teams to other leagues and when the dust of all the movement settled, NJIT was left without a partner; or a conference.

That's right, the Highlanders, only a few years removed from their initial season at the Division I level, are standing alone as the only independent men's basketball team in the country at this level.

In their first year as independents, the Highlanders went 13-6, led by Damon Lynn's team-high 17.2 points per game.

Lynn, who is sophomore this season, will be back on the court for NJIT, surrounded by a group of experienced players who, despite the lack of conference allegiance, are simply focused on competing every day and almost every day is a game day.

Thanks to their independent schedule, the Highlanders simply compete when other team's have an opening on their schedule, a situation that makes for a bit of a hectic season.

NJIT has some serious length on the wings, with only three players under 6-feet, and that will present a challenge for the Red Storm. The Highlanders don't have a lot of height, but will compete and defend to cause turnovers.

Add into the mix that the Highlanders are, once again, fighting for respect as an after-thought for most team's out-of-conference schedule and Friday's game could be a tough test for both squads, working to start the season on the good foot.