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NIT Season Tip-Off: Johnnies ready for their first critical stretch

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The first test is coming up for St. John's.

John Alber

Last season the Johnnies struggled to make a name for themselves in the non-conference, but this year there are plenty of opportunities starting with the NIT Season Tip-off in Madison Square Garden.

Beginning Wednesday night against Minnesota, St. John's has a chance to come up with two marquee wins early in this new season.

"This is an important two-game stretch that will have a similar feel to the NCAA Tournament, because it's a great venue and the competition is strong," Steve Lavin said.

The Big East has been stellar to start the season. Teams like Providence and Creighton have captured the nation's attention, Villanova defeated VCU last night, and Seton Hall won the Paradise Jam Tournament. With the talent to make it happen and the Big East wide open, the Red Storm can't let this chance slip by.

"We know how important these next two games are," D'Angelo Harrison said. "To come out 2-0 in this tournament would be big for this program, making people take us seriously."

In order to beat Minnesota on Wednesday, the Johnnies know they must do a better job on the boards and they must lock down defensively. They gave up 21 offensive rebounds vs. LIU and 71 points to Franklin Pierce; those numbers won't be acceptable against a big, strong and efficient team like the Gophers.

The game is a chance to test the Red Storm talent and depth and for the senior-laden squad to improve.

"We have a number of interchangeable parts," Lavin said, "guys who can bring the ball up the floor, playmakers and shot makers. Defensively, we need to get better on the help-side. Rebounding is something that we will always need to work on, collectively.

"We have a lot to improve on, especially on the defensive side of the ball," Phil Greene IV said. "Once we come together on the defensive end, it will fuel our offense."

Andre Hollins, who is one of the better guards in the Big Ten, will be focal point for the defense. So far this season, Hollins is averaging 13.3 points per game and 4 rebounds per game. If he is on a roll, the Gophers are tough to beat.

Minnesota and St. John's aren't the only strong programs to participate in the NIT Tip-off Classic as top-25-ranked Gonzaga and SEC program Georgia can pose threats.

Gonzaga is ranked 10th in the country. Their back court of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, Jr. is one of the most experienced and consistent in the NCAA. 7' 1" Przemek Karnowski provides the rebounding for the Zags despite some issues getting up and down the court; and the Zags have talented help in Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and Domatas Sabonis.

Georgia is 3-1 to open the season and Marcus Thornton is leading them in scoring with 14 points per game. They too are tough competition.

""We all talk about how big these next couple of games are," Greene said. "We have to approach them as winner-take-all, like a tournament game. We have to come in and play hard from the get go."

The Johnnies play the Gophers at 7 pm on Wednesday and will then play in the consolation or championship game on Friday (4:30 or 7).

Rumble will have coverage throughout the week.