Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
St. John’s, Seton Hall Set to Square Off in Big East Play as Both Envision NCAA Berths
No. 15 St. John’s and Seton Hall will open the Big East Conference slate at noon today in a season in which both teams are envisioning a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
And in this dreary year for New York pro teams (other than the hockey franchises), wouldn’t it be nice to see the two area Big East teams make the Big Dance?
The Johnnies are certainly set up to go dancing.
At 11-1, St. John’s is off to its best start since the 1985-6 season and is clicking on all cylinders following an 82-57 dismantling of Tulane on Sunday at Barclays Center.
Their only loss came last month in the NIT Season Tip-Off title game to a tough Gonzaga team that appears to be a Final Four contender.
“After the Preseason NIT, we let one of the top teams in the country slip away,” senior guard D’Angelo Harrison said of the Zags. “We were right there and we should’ve had that one. We should be 12-0 but we let that slip away. It gave us fire for the next few games until now. That was the turning point for me.”
The Johnnies will open the Big East with three tough tests against Seton Hall (10-2), previously ranked Butler on Saturday and then No. 6 Villanova on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. Looming ahead is a Jan. 25 showdown with projected No. 1 pick Jahlil Okafor and No. 2 Duke at the Garden.
“Our best non-conference opponents present similar challenges to those we will now face in Big East competition,” coach Steve Lavin said. “In conference play there is a razor-thin margin of error, which puts a premium on execution and sustained effort.”
The surprise of the first part of the season for St. John’s has been senior Sir’Dominic Pointer, who is playing the power forward position and averaging 11.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists. The Detroit native is coming off a 24-point, 7-steal performance against Tulane.
“As crazy as this sounds, I think the key to the team is Sir`Dominic Pointer, the fact that he’s now playing the power forward spot, having four guards on the floor that can beat you off the dribble and can create, he really causes nightmare match ups for everyone that they’ve played and it’s going to be a big challenge for us to be able to contain him not only in the half court,” Pirates coach Kevin Willard said this week.
“Most impressively with Dom is what he does in the fast break in creating shots for Phil Greene and shots for D`Angelo on the break. Their guards are tremendous, they’re veterans, they’ve been through good times and bad times and now they’re really blossoming at the right time and Lav is just doing a tremendous job with them.”
While Harrison told me it would be a “complete failure” if his team didn’t make the NCAAs this year, it’s a different timeline for a young Seton Hall squad.
The Pirates would love to make the Big Dance this season, but it’s next year when they should really be poised to do some damage.
By then all of their talented freshmen will be sophomores and should be ready to take it to another level.
Still, a win today over the No. 15 Red Storm would certainly help Seton Hall’s resume going forward, especially considering they were overmatched by Wichita State and Georgia in their previous big tests.
For now, the Pirates are playing without Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year Isaiah Whitehead (stress fracture) and will need guards Jaren Sina, Sterling Gibbs and Khadeen Carrington to handle the pressure from the older St. John’s guards.
“From an offensive standpoint we have the depth to sustain that a little bit, but defensively it hurts us probably a little bit more than offensively because we’re losing his basketball IQ,” Willard said of Whitehead.
The Red Storm has won three straight against the Pirates, with both wins last season coming by one point.
“I love the way St. John’s is playing as a team both offensively and defensively,” Willard said. “Going to be a real test for our young guys to play our first Big East game against St. John’s, who I think is one of the best teams, and Villanova who is obviously the other best team. We have our hands full, going into Wednesday, but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Follow Adam Zagoria on TwitterAnd Like Zags on Facebook
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
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.