PHILADELPHIA -- Rysheed Jordan spoke to the media for the first time in his St. John’s career Friday -- sort of.
Coach Steve Lavin has not allowed his prize freshman to do any interviews this season, and doesn’t plan to. But Jordan was in the St. John’s press conference room Friday afternoon as two teammates were taking questions, and a couple reporters couldn’t resist.
When asked how many family member and friends will attend Saturday’s game against Villanova, Jordan signaled “40,” flashing the number “4” with one hand and a closed fist with the other. And, when asked if he had ever played a game at the Wells Fargo Center, Jordan shook his head -- with a smile.
That’s all we got from Jordan. But his coach and teammates said plenty more, just prior to boarding a bus bound for Philadelphia.
“He can’t wait. He said it’s been a long time since he played in his hometown,” said guard Phil Greene IV. “He just wants to go out and give it his all, basically. He just wants to win.”
A win over the No. 9-ranked Wildcats (23-3, 11-2 Big East) would be the biggest victory of the season for the surging Red Storm (18-9, 8-6), who are 6-0 in the month of February, and have won nine of their past 10 games.
St. John’s entered ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s projected NCAA tournament field for the first time all season on Monday, a day after pounding Georgetown by 22 points at Madison Square Garden. But the Red Storm have just one win against a ranked opponent and could use another resume boost.
Jordan has been arguably the biggest reason for the St. John’s turnaround following an 0-5 start in conference play. After some early-season struggles, he has scored in double figures in five of the past eight games, including a career-high 24 points in the blowout of the Hoyas.
Now Jordan returns to city where he was born and raised, and where he made his name (and nickname, “The Prince of North Philly”), leading Roberts Vaux High School to a state championship and being named the city player of the year as a high school senior.
Jordan poured in 45 points in the Philadelphia public school championship game last season, but Lavin doesn’t want him to try to do too much or be a hero against Villanova. Lavin said he spoke to Jordan about that Thursday, as well as potential distractions, and plans to do so again sometime before tipoff Saturday.
“He was really good today in practice, which is a good indication, he was sharp,” Lavin said. “I know he’s looking forward to it. But he’s going to need to take a couple of deep breaths and lose himself into the flow of a game, not try and force the action, let the game come to him so to speak.”
Jordan came very close to staying home to play his college basketball. He grew up just a few blocks from the Temple campus, and his college decision ultimately came down to St. John’s and Temple.
When Jordan announced his choice in April, he cited a desire to go away from home, but not too far, among his reasons. Temple coach Fran Dunphy obviously was disappointed, yet spoke very highly of Jordan in a phone interview Friday.
“I think he has all the ingredients necessary to be just a very, very special player,” Dunphy said. “He’s No. 1 very competitive. He’s very long, he’s very quick, he’s very strong. I think he’s a good teammate, I think he takes care of his team -- I don’t think he has a lot of personal concern, it’s not like he thinks of himself first. I do think he truly thinks of the team first.”
“I think his best days are absolutely in front of him,” Dunphy added. “He’s just gonna get better and better.”
Jordan has been more aggressive in recent games, showing an increased confidence in his jump shot, in addition to driving to the basket. His assist-to-turnover ratio (1.6-to-1) ranks him among the Big East leaders (currently 12th), and he made a gorgeous pass to center Chris Obekpa to set up the game-winning free throw against Seton Hall last Thursday.
Lavin has repeatedly called Jordan as impressive a player at this stage of his career as he’s ever coached -- and that list includes several former and current NBA players.
“His temperament is even-keel, and that’s ideal for a point guard -- a point guard, being the equivalent of the quarterback, is the central nervous system of a team,” Lavin said. “When you have a cool customer that’s got ice in his veins like Rysheed, it goes a long way in terms of having an opportunity to be successful.”
Lavin also cited Jordan’s vision as something that sets him apart. “At high speed, he sees things with clarity and throws precise passes to set his teammates up,” Lavin said. “He makes the game look easy -- he makes difficult plays look easy. That’s a gift, you can’t teach that.”
When asked what he expects from Jordan against Villanova, Lavin passed, with a smile. “The more I coach, the less I know about being able to project or speculate about the future,” he said.
But Jordan’s teammates expressed plenty of confidence. Greene, a Chicago native, has played at nearby DePaul multiple times. “You just gotta focus,” Greene said. “It’s just extra added pressure, but Rysheed’ll be fine.”
“I expect him to have another big game,” forward Jakarr Sampson said. “Just go out there and do his thing, facilitate, make open shots and create for others, and just play his game.”
St. John’s lost the first meeting between these teams on Jan. 11 at Madison Square Garden, 74-67 – an ugly game in which neither team shot better than 35 percent from the field, featuring 51 fouls (30 by St. John’s) and 64 free throw attempts (40 by Villanova). Jordan did come alive in the second half, scoring 10 of his 12 points.
But Villanova will face a very different St. John’s team now, even if Obekpa (ankle, game-time decision) is unable to go.
“I think they’re playing as well as anyone in the country right now,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said Friday, of the Red Storm.
Villanova hasn’t lost to anyone other than Creighton since December. St. John’s hasn’t lost to anyone, period, since January. And Rysheed Jordan makes his return to Philly.
It’s not March yet, but this is must-see TV -- even if the Prince can only let his play do the talking.