NEW YORK -- The only New Yorkers enjoying this miserable February may be the St. John’s Red Storm, and their fans.
The weather has been bitter cold, and the snow just won’t get lost, but St. John’s is red hot -- a winner of three in a row, and six of seven.
After an 0-5 start in conference play, the Red Storm are back in the NCAA tournament conversation.
Next up? A rematch with cross-river rival Seton Hall on Thursday night at the Prudential Center. St. John’s won the first meeting of the season, 77-76 on Jan. 23 at Carnesecca Arena. But believe it or not, the Red Storm haven’t beaten the Pirates on the road in 16 years -- since Feb. 15, 1998, to be exact. (Ron Artest, aka Metta World Peace, was a freshman.)
What’s behind the St. John’s turnaround? Here are three reasons the Red Storm are suddenly a force to be reckoned with:
1. D UP: St. John’s held Creighton, currently ranked 23rd in the country in scoring (80.5 ppg), to 63 and 65 points, respectively, in two of its past four games. In the two games in between, St. John’s limited Providence to 38.1 percent shooting, and Marquette to 34.8 percent.
The Red Storm have risen to 50th (out of 345) in Division I in field-goal percentage defense (40.4), and remain tops in the nation in in blocked shots per game (eight). Coach Steve Lavin has turned to full-court pressure more frequently in recent games, and it’s worked.
Lavin said Wednesday he sees the defensive improvement as the “continued evolution of a basketball team.” The players spoke of a different mindset, brought about in part by improved practice habits and extra sprints for the losers in particular drills.
“We’re maturing as a group,” guard D'Angelo Harrison said. “We don’t like when teams score, we get mad when other teams score. Each possession [the other team scores] now, we look around -- like, what happened? That’s a good thing. We take pride on defense now.”
2. DOUBLE UP: Everyone who’s playing right now is making a significant contribution. In the win over Creighton on Sunday, eight players got at least 10 minutes and all eight scored. Six of the eight had at least seven points. The other two were the team’s leading rebounder and assist man in the game.
Obekpa appeared to be in a funk for most of January, scoring just 15 points in the first seven games of the month, with only 12 blocked shots -- he led the nation in blocks last season (4.1 bpg), and is ninth this year (3.3). But in the past four games, Obekpa has scored in double figures three times, collected at least five rebounds in each game, and recorded 11 blocks.
Jordan, who was rated No. 17 in the ESPN 100 as a high school senior -- three spots ahead of Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis, a candidate for national freshman of the year -- hasn’t had nearly the impact Ennis has had. But Jordan has come on of late. He scored a career-high 18 points against Providence nine days ago, and has had six or more assists in each of the past three games. He’s now third on the team in scoring (8.1 ppg), leads the team in assists (3.3 apg), and has a 1.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“He’s passing the ball so well, and he’s defending -- he’s creating a lot of havoc, he’s getting a lot of steals,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said Wednesday of Jordan. “He’s creating their tempo for them, he’s really pushing at a great pace and he’s making great decisions. Although he’s a freshman, he’s probably playing as good as anybody in the conference right now.”
3. SUBS DOWN: The low point of the season thus far was the loss at Georgetown on Jan. 4. Lavin started walk-on Khadim Ndiaye and little-used Felix Balamou to shake things up, brought JaKarr Sampson off the bench for the first time in his career, and used 13 different players in the first half alone. The moves certainly did not work -- the Red Storm trailed 42-16 at intermission.
Lavin continued to use 10 or more players after that. But in recent games, he has whittled down his rotation. Lavin went with eight in the win over Creighton, plus a brief first-half cameo by forward God'sgift Achiuwa. In the previous game against Providence, the rotation was even tighter -- only six players received double-digit minutes.
It should come as no surprise that the team’s chemistry has improved as a result. Lavin continues to tinker with the starting lineup, but there’s been a lot more consistency of late overall, in terms of combinations. In the team’s past five games, three five-man groups have played nearly 50 percent of the minutes, according to kenpom.com. All three groups feature Jordan, Harrison and Sampson. Obekpa is in two of them, with Orlando Sanchez, Sir'Dominic Pointer, Phil Greene and Jamal Branch sprinkled in one apiece.
St. John’s has certainly looked more together defensively, which can lead to improved offense as well, as Lavin said Wednesday.
“If you’re playing in a cohesive manner defensively in terms of rotating, or helping on a screen, or diving on the floor, giving up your body trying to get a 50/50 or loose ball,” Lavin said, “then I think you’re more likely on the offensive end to also set that screen to set up a teammate, or make that one extra pass to get the open shot, or tip a ball to keep it alive so that a teammate can secure the offensive rebound.”
There are other reasons St. John’s has been winning games. Harrison has been a rock all season long, averaging 18.3 points (third in the conference), scoring in double figures in 22 of 24 games (and 20-plus points 10 times). The entire team has done a tremendous job taking care of the ball -- the Red Storm are 20th in the country in turnovers (10.2 per game), and 19th in turnover margin (+3.3 per game).
But now, just three weeks after beating Seton Hall for its first Big East win after an 0-5 start, St. John’s has a chance to beat the Hall again to improve to 6-6 in the conference -- .500, with six games to play.
“We’re supposed to have been playing like this,” Harrison said. “I’m not gonna say it’s good that [the bad start] happened, but it made us learn a lot in a couple weeks. Now we’re a completely different group.”