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St. John's vs. St. Thomas Aquinas Spartans exhibition preview

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After a slow start against Humboldt State last week, the Red Storm look to get out early in the second and final exhibition game of the season on Saturday afternoon

John Alber

There can be no more sluggish starts.

For the second straight season, the St. John's men's basketball team got off to a slow start in the Red Storm's first exhibition game of the season, rallying in the second half for the 95-83 victory over Humboldt State last week.

It wasn't always pretty. In fact, the majority of the first half looked pretty ugly.

Then, of course, there were parts that looked pretty good. Chris Obekpa's triple-double of 22 points, 11 blocks and 10 rebounds was the unquestionable high-point and solidified the junior forward's return to the Red Storm lineup after an offseason that seemed to provide more questions than answers.

"Overall we were disappointed with our performance in the first half, but in the second half the kids played better basketball," coach Steve Lavin said of the exhibition game in a statement released by the school "The two positives were that we came out with more purpose offensively in the second half and that we had better ball movement."

Now, with the St. Thomas Aquinas Spartans, another Division II program, on the schedule for this Saturday's second and final exhibition game of the season, the Red Storm cannot afford another slow start.

Tipoff for Saturday's exhibition game at Carnesecca Arena is scheduled for 2 p.m. and is available live on ESPN3.

Point of Attention

Let's talk about Rysheed Jordan for a second.

The pressure is on for the sophomore point guard this season, with a year under his metahporical belt, to lead an experienced offense and strong backcourt back to the promised land of Big East dominance.

If we're going off of Jordan's early performance against Humbold State last week, there may be some cause for concern.

Jordan did not look good in the first half. He was forcing some plays and not being aware of others and while he did hit double digits scoring, Jordan's overall performance was less-than-ideal for those hoping to see the second-year starter return to the court as a visible offensive leader.

Yes, he finished with 19 points - the third most on the team's box score - but there are other parts of Jordan's stat line that are more interesting and more troubling; specifically his eight turnovers.

That's more than double the next turnover number on the squad. D'Angelo Harrison had four. As a team, St. John's finished with 21 total turnovers.

That can't happen for a point guard and, yes, it's an exhibition game. Yes, the team looked collectively bad in the first half. But, Jordan has to be better. He has to be a leader and he'll need to be able to direct this offense with authority against a St. Thomas Aquinas squad that returns its own crop of experience, especially in the backcourt.

Scouting St. Thomas Aquinas

This is a good team. Or rather, the Spartans have the potential to be a good team.

Aquinas hasn't played a game outside of the usual inter-squad practice scrimmages yet this season, so there's plenty of reason to expect a few cobwebs at the initial tip. That shouldn't last long.

The Spartans return ECC Rookie of the Year Chaz Watler, who averaged 13.3 points per game last winter, to the roster this season as well as senior guard Marcus Henderson, giving Aquinas a strong foundation in the backcourt. More importantly, it gives them a strong scoring duo as the pair finished second and third on the team in points per game last year.

It should be interesting to see how the duo, and the entire team for that matter, deal with St. John's defensive pressure. The Red Storm pressed Humboldt State consistently last weekend and will, most likely, bring that same mindset into Saturday's exhibition game as well.

"That's just what we do, we press," Storm senior Sir'Dominic Porter said. "We pride ourselves on ball pressure. We pride ourselves on defense. That is what we are going to do. We are going to play 94 feet of defense."

If there is one thing Aquinas is missing this season, it's a strong presence under the hoop. Omar Kellman, who averaged a team-high 14.5 points and 8.2 rebounds, graduated last spring and the only returning post presence this year, Alushula Odongo, averaged just over seven points per game.

That means the Storm have to attack down low, early and often. That means Chris Obekpa is going to need another strong performance.

Aquinas has just one player over 6-6 on its roster and that's freshman Sam Berlin who is listed at 6-10, matching Obekpa's listed height. Berlin may be tall but he isn't very big and he's also a freshman, meaning the odds of him getting some solid minutes in the crux of the game aren't very high.

The Spartans were one of two Division II invited to the NIT Season Tip-Off this year, a tournament that also includes St. John's, and while Aquinas won't move on to the matchups at Madison Square Garden, this exhibition game is a big-time primer for their upcoming games.

This is a good team with capable, experienced players who already know that they're good enough to compete against D-I squads.

It's an exhibition game still but don't be surprised to see an Aquinas squad that comes onto this court ready and determined, anxious to take advantage of any kind of slow St. John's start.