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Previewing the St. John's women's basketball season - talent, buzz, and building a winning program

The Red Storm women were picked to finish second in the Big East and are already receiving national poll votes. So, who's ready for the season?

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

There are women's basketball-type things happening!

While the St. John's men's basketball team is prepping for the coming season and NJIT, the women's squad is going through its own preseason bumps, preparations and increasingly high set of expectations.

This is a team that was selected to finish second in the Big East, a team that went through a successful European tour this summer and a team who is looking to combine some serious experience with a talented crop of first-year players including Tamesha Alexander and Crystal Simmons.

So, what's the deal with the Red Storm women?

Let's analyze.

"Obviously we're proud of the fact that we're in the top of the conference preseason rankings," St. John's coach Joe Tartamella said at Big East Media Day last month. "It's a testament to our players' dedication. We're also proud of the individual awards in the preseason, but we're focused as a team on being relentless on both ends of the floor and vying for the BIG EAST title."

The Storm are looking to clinch its sixth straight NCAA Tournament berth this season, led by junior guard Aliyyah Handford who was a unanimous all-Big East first conference selection last month.

Handford started all 34 of the Storm's games last season and 30 of those performances went for double-figures with 20-plus point performances in 11 games.

Add into the mix senior forward Amber Thompson, who averaged just under 10 rebounds a game last yea,r as well as junior guard Danaejah Grant and the Red Storm are once again a formidable force simply based on their experience alone.

"We're ready to go," Grant, who averaged 11 points and five rebounds last season, said. "We're excited about the season. We fell short of some of our goals last season but we're ready to come back and attack to start the season off right. Anyone who wants to see some exciting games should definitely come out to St. John's this season."

But the palpable buzz around the Red Storm this season isn't simply white noise.

Last week, St. John's began receiving votes in the national rankings, garnering seven votes in the Associated Press Preseason Poll as well as 16 votes in the USA Today Sports Preseason Coaches Poll.

This time last year, the Storm received just one vote in the USA Today Poll but by season's end had risen as high as No. 22 in the AP Poll.

The good news doesn't end there though.

Kyra Dunn, a graduate student who received her bachelor's degree from Cal-Berkeley, has been deemed eligible by the NCAA with one year of college-level eligibility left to her name.

A 6-3 forward, who saw a good amount of time with Berkeley, Dunn offers the Storm some solid height under the hoop but the added bonus of a soft outside shot.

"We're excited that Kyra has been granted eligibility for the upcoming year," said Tartamella. "She's a tremendous talent and gives us a level of depth in the frontcourt that we haven't seen in a while here at St. John's."

This season, the Storm is looking to find a balance between the experience they know they have and the untested talent that has filled out the roster in the preseason.

The key, one that was on full display during the squad's trip overseas this summer, is to let the game run itself. In other words, every aspect of the game has to mach another, the defense fuels the offense and vice-versa.

"Our defense is what fuels our offense," Handford said. "We know that if we focus on our defense our offense will come eventually, so we've been working on it a lot in practice. Coach knows that defense is the key to this team playing well. We have a lot of height on the team this season and I think that will help us out, especially on the defensive end and on the boards."

The end goal, of course, is an NCAA Tournament berth but first the Storm know they have to take care of some early-season business and that begins with their opener at Yale Saturday afternoon.

St. John's has nine non-league games on its schedule prior to the 7th Annual Chartwells Holiday Classic at Carnesecca Arena in December. The Storm open Big East play at Providence on December 30th.

"It will set the tone for our team and what we expect from this season," Grant said of next week's opener. "It will also show our freshmen what this program has accomplished in the past five years and show them what we need to do every night to be a winning program."