NEWARK, N.J. -- As I wrap up my coverage for the day here at the East Regional across the Hudson River, I can't help but think about where I might have been right now, if things had gone differently in Denver last week:
Covering St. John's in New Orleans in the Sweet Sixteen.
Obviously things did not go well against Gonzaga on this night one week ago, in that 86-71 loss, in which the Red Storm never really threatened in the second half. But there was a glimpse of the future in that final 20 minutes in Denver, and a reason for optimism among St. John's fans, amidst their distress. And that was the play of the team's lone freshman, Dwayne Polee.
After scoring 16 points in his very first college game, Polee did not make quite the impact many St. John's fans were hoping for in his first season in New York. The 6-foot-7 swingman from California remained in the starting lineup, and showed occasional flashes of athletic brilliance -- but his season averages (4.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg in 14.9 minutes per game) were paltry.
And in the first half against Gonzaga, Polee stuck to the script, with just two points in three minutes.
But in the second half in Denver, Polee came out aggressive -- as aggressive as he had played since that very first game at St. Mary's. He looked for his shot, he got in the lane, he got to the foul line, and ended up with a line of 12 points, three rebounds, three assists and three steals.
"I knew with D.J. [Kennedy] down, I had to be more aggressive and assert myself more, so that's just what I tried to do," Polee said on Friday morning at the team hotel in Denver, before the Red Storm departed for New York.
Polee, along with current sophomore guard Malik Stith, are the only two players from this year's team who will be in Steve Lavin's rotation next season. Nine new recruits will be on the squad starting next fall -- very highly touted recruits, but players with a lot to learn nonetheless.
Polee sounded eager for the challenge of being a leader the day after his freshman season ended.
"I like the idea," Polee said. "Coming from a team that had 10 seniors, I feel like I have a lot of experience -- with all the big games we had all year, that experience will carry over to next year, and I think I'll help the freshmen a lot."
Polee said he has kept in touch with many of the incoming recruits, and that they are excited to join him in New York. He was asked by a reporter what's the biggest thing he learned from this first season at St. John's.
"You can't worry about who has what, or how many points you have, or how many assists you have," Polee said. "You just gotta give yourself to the team and do whatever it takes to win."
Sounds like a guy ready to provide some good leadership.
Lavin knows he is in for a big test next season.
"Next year will be the most challenging year of my career, because it's the youngest team in school history, the youngest team in the country, and competing in the Big East," Lavin said at the hotel. "We know that we're two years, three years out from becoming the basketball program that we hope to be.
"It's always been a 3-to-4 year plan, but that doesn't mean that along the way we couldn't do some really special things -- like this year, exceeding expectations, finishing third [in the Big East] and going to the NCAA tournament, winning 21 games. But next year will be very similar, for a different set of reasons. We're still 2-to-3 years away, but we can do some really special things along the way."
Just a couple things for you to ponder, St. John's fans, as we watch the rest of this NCAA tournament, and enter a long offseason.