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Thursday / February 23.

Sampson, Johnnies Eyeing NCAA Tournament Bid

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JaKarr Sampson and St. John’s are among the hottest teams in the Big East, having won six of their last seven games.

But the Johnnies (15-8, 7-4 Big East) will be severely tested with games at No. 9 Syracuse Sunday and No. 11 Louisville Thursday.

“I’m capable of thinking we can win,” Sampson, a freshman forward, said of the 3 p.m. tilt at the Carrier Dome. “Our coach and coaching staff has been doing a good job of getting us ready for this game and getting us ready for a physical game because it’s going to come down to rebounding. We need to rebound because we are great stopping teams on defense but we need to come away with the ball after that stop.”

Sampson, a five-time Big East Rookie of the Week, is St. John’s second-leading scorer (14.5 ppg) and leading rebounder (6.6) and has been “shooting up [NBA Draft] charts,” a veteran NBA scout told, reiterating comments he made after Wednesday’s win over UConn at Madison Square Garden.

“The kid is shooting up the charts,” the scout said. “He’s the personification of upside. He has great physical tools, great athleticism, great length. He has an improving skillset and his understanding is growing of how to play.

“And so now if he’s a good guy and he wants to do it and he’ll commit to the work that’s necessary, it all adds up. Guys like him, he’s going to out-athlete the [small forward] position. He’s gonna be a heck of a player.”

As to criticisms that Sampson can’t shoot and doesn’t have a position, the scout said, “His position is he’s a small forward. He’s shooting much better from 15 feet on in.”

In terms of criticisms by random NBA GM’s and others about his appraisal of Sampson, the scout said: “There’s always controversy over players. There’s 30 teams in the NBA and thank God they don’t all think alike. There’s 15 or 20 teams that make bad move after bad move.”

For the time being, however, Sampson and St. John’s are focused on trying to make a run at Lavin’s second NCAA Tournament bid in three years.

A win in either of these games would be a nice win on the résumé.

“The goal of any college basketball player or coach is to be able to participate in one of the world’s greatest sporting events: the NCAA Tournament,” Lavin said.

“Having the opportunity to do something special in March is what we all dream of. When I came to St. John’s and recruited these players, the objective was to go dancing in March.”

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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.