Sunday, January 29, 2012

New York May As Well Be Moe Town

If you didn't know who Moe Harkless was before yesterday, chances are you do now.  (Photo courtesy of Newsday)

After the dust from St. John's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2002 settled, the attention around New York turned to the nation's third-best recruiting class that was delivered to the Big Apple by head coach Steve Lavin.  When three of the coveted prospects who had signed were declared ineligible, (two of whom actually decommitted and reopened their recruitment) the six men who came to the Red Storm showed signs of a promising future that would make what happened last season seem as though it were just the beginning.  One of the six ultimately transferred, but was quickly replaced when Amir Garrett was cleared to start his collegiate career.  Nearly three months removed from their first official game as collegiate student-athletes; two of these newcomers have stood out, one more so than the other.

Being that I am somehow (don't ask me why) regarded as a college basketball expert, I was asked the seemingly inevitable question of which freshman I thought would ultimately be the best player on the Red Storm team this season several times before the opening tip.  Honestly, my answer was D'Angelo Harrison.  Through the nonconference season, the sharpshooting Texan validated my faith with several standout performances against the likes of St. Francis and Fordham among others.  However, rising fast was a homegrown talent; one who has put the Big East on notice with his explosive offensive game and ability to fill the box score, while also serving as an unspoken leader on this team.  This man was unofficially anointed the face of the team shortly after the season started, and now it can be seen that such a move was made for good reason.

Having played high school ball a mere mid-range jump shot away from St. John's at Forest Hills High School before taking his talents to South Kent Prep in Connecticut; a school that produced former Johnnies Dele Coker and Rob Thomas among others, Moe Harkless earned a reputation of wanting to play the hero before he even suited up for the Red Storm.  The forward; who chose St. John's over Jim Calhoun and reigning national champion Connecticut in a high-profile recruitment, was enthusiastic about coming back home to continue the resurgence that was started a year ago.  Yet for a long time, it seemed that Harkless was holding something back on the court.  Yesterday afternoon against Duke; coupled with his record-setting 32-point, 13-rebound statement against Providence in December, has gone a long way in changing that.

Even though his 30 points led all scorers against the Blue Devils in a game that Duke led by as many as 22 before escaping Cameron Indoor Stadium with a hard-earned 83-76 win that head coach Mike Krzyzewski claimed "felt like a loss" after the game, Harkless was visibly far more animated than at any other point in his previous twenty games to date.  The only player who has had the distinction of starting every game this season for the Red Storm, Harkless was clearly upset about the final outcome despite increasing his team-leading scoring and rebounding averages to 16.6 and 8.8 per game, respectively.  "I wanted to win the game," Harkless said bluntly when asked about the change in demeanor.  "Coach (assistant Mike Dunlap, who is serving as interim head man while Lavin recovers from successful prostate cancer surgery) told us in practice how much he respects Duke, but he always wants to beat them.  He kind of put that in our heads.  This game was personal."

You could sense that judging by Harkless' offensive exploits, which included the first-half dunk pictured above that pulled the Red Storm to within three points midway through the opening stanza and forced Krzyzewski to call timeout.  "I think he grew up today," said D'Angelo Harrison, who served as the Han Solo to Harkless' Luke Skywalker with 21 points of his own.  Harkless has already "made it" to some degree in the college basketball world; as no less an authority than college basketball insider Jon Rothstein has bestowed one of his famous player comparisons upon him, comparing Harkless to former UConn big man Rudy Gay.  A week ago against West Virginia; when Harkless was the catalyst to an upset St. John's win with 23 points and 13 rebounds, the man responsible for his evolution during the season offered this assessment of his burgeoning star.  "He's got a long way to go to be a complete player," said Mike Dunlap following the West Virginia game.  "He's versatile, but his tool box still needs to be developed."

Dick Vitale and Al McGuire both said on numerous occasions that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores the following year.  If people are getting excited about Moe Harkless now, just imagine what he will blossom into in just a few more months.  If nothing else, the title of "best in the recruiting class" will be his by a landslide.

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