Friday, November 14, 2014

St. John's/NJIT Preview

After losing out on 2015 prospect Isaiah Briscoe, Steve Lavin and St. John's regroup to host NJIT in season opener. (Photo courtesy of Jason Schott)

An eventful week for St. John's comes to an end later tonight.

The past few days may not have gone as well as Red Storm fans may have hoped, with the eligibility issues surrounding freshman center Adonis De La Rosa and the verbal commitment of coveted 2015 recruit Isaiah Briscoe to the University of Kentucky. Regardless, St. John's still opens its 107th season of men's basketball tonight against NJIT, and head coach Steve Lavin will be looking to right the ship as he enters his fifth season with arguably the highest set of expectations placed upon a talent-laden roster that, somehow, still has yet to place an NCAA Tournament appearance on its resume.

The lack of success at the highest level does not necessarily mean the Red Storm are not good enough, however. Junior forward Chris Obekpa, who recorded a triple-double in St. John's first of two exhibition games before sitting out with a sprained ankle that Lavin has assured the media will be ready to go for opening night, has played some of his better basketball lately, and senior guard D'Angelo Harrison is the reigning Haggerty Award winner, symbolic of his recognition as the best player in the metropolitan area last season.

With that said, their opponents are no longer the guaranteed win that some programs believed they were scheduling when placing NJIT on their ledgers over the years. Despite being the nation's lone independent, Jim Engles has turned a handicap into a motivator for the Highlanders, who have competed against the likes of Providence, Hofstra, and even this St. John's team over the years, leading the Red Storm by 14 points in the second half the last time these two teams met in 2012. NJIT also has some history of another kind at Carnesecca Arena, as it was the Highlanders who faced St. John's on December 8, 2008 in a game remembered for Justin Burrell breaking the stanchion behind the basket on a dunk, causing a near 30-minute delay in a convincing Red Storm victory.

The past has been good to St. John's against NJIT, but to get a closer look at the present and future, we bring in a man with extensive knowledge of the Highlanders that only complements his rich background with metropolitan area basketball. It is our pleasure to introduce the one and only Jim Hague, who is the public address voice of NJIT basketball at the Estelle and Zoom Fleisher Athletic Center in addition to his exceptional work with The Sports Xchange and The Associated Press in covering the Brooklyn Nets and Seton Hall Pirates. Jim was gracious enough to join us for our pregame question and answer session, which will shed some light on the Garden State invaders to Queens on this opening night:

Jaden Daly: First things first, how is it that Jim Engles still doesn't get the credit he deserves for taking NJIT from the depths of Division I and turning the program into a credible opponent over the last few years?

Jim Hague: Engles has been hurt by the fact that NJIT is not in a conference, so being an independent, you really need to get some huge wins to gain attention, even locally. Last year, the Highlanders were moving in the right direction early with huge road wins at Army, Maine and New Hampshire, but the Highlanders could not maintain that momentum and suffered six straight losses to local teams like LIU Brooklyn, Seton Hall, Hofstra and St. Francis.

The Highlanders need more wins like they had early last year and less losses like the ones they had to endure toward the middle of the season against the New York metropolitan schools, but considering the fact that Engles inherited a program that was once in the middle of an NCAA record 51-game losing streak and has enjoyed three winning seasons during his tenure in Newark shows how talented of a coach he really is.

JD: This year's NJIT team is young for the most part, with only two seniors and a handful of sophomores and juniors, but with most of last year's core returning, how much do you feel the experience of playing together will help the youth on the roster?

JH: The Highlanders got better as the season went on last year, especially developing a rotation in the front court with people like Daquan Holiday and Tim Coleman. It’s not known how much the incoming freshmen are expected to help right away, but one of the most improved players is sophomore swingman Rob Ukawuba, who showed a ton of promise at the end of last season and has incredible leaping ability. Ukawuba, a product of East Brunswick, N.J., has a chance to be a major contributor from the start this season. According to the coaches, he had an excellent offseason.

JD: Damon Lynn is more than just a three-point shot even though his numbers may not suggest that at first blush. What about him will St. John's have to defend most, and after 107 threes as a freshman, how far away is he from really taking off?

JH: Lynn averaged 17 points per game last year as a freshman and he set a host of freshman scoring records at the school. He does love to shoot the ball from long range, with 107 threes out of 151 field goals made. His 34 points against North Carolina-A&T is the highest single game scoring output since NJIT went Division I in 2007. The 107 3-pointers is the fourth highest total by a freshman ever in the NCAA. Lynn was an incredible surprise who won’t sneak up on anyone this year. St. John’s will have to follow him everywhere he goes, because he can shoot from 28 feet out and has a rapid fire release. He also has the green light from Engles to shoot at will.

JD: NJIT's size is similar to that of St. John's now in light of the Red Storm's frontcourt issues, which have forced Steve Lavin to play a four-guard lineup with Sir'Dominic Pointer at the five. Is the shorter lineup more advantageous for the Highlander offense or defense?

JH: The Highlanders have to play small a lot because they really don’t have a choice. Holiday is the lone inside presence and he’s only 6-foot-8. Coleman plays power forward, but he’s only 6-foot-4. The Highlanders’ best players are all guards in Lynn, junior Winfield Willis (who had 30 in one game last year), point guard Ky Howard and versatile guard Montana Mayfield. There might be times when Engles puts all four of those guards on the floor at the same time with one big man. Another inside scoring threat is Terrence Smith, but he’s only 6-foot-6 and is a little foul prone, so Engles may have no other option but to play the guards together. One thing is for sure: Lynn does not come off the floor unless he’s in foul trouble or injured.

JD: Finally, the Highlanders continue to schedule well, with trips to Marquette, Michigan and Villanova during the season among others. Is it out of the realm of possibility to suggest that Engles will pull off an upset in one of their games in the first half of the year?

JH: Of those games, the Highlanders have no realistic chance to contend with any of those powers, not to mention St. John’s Friday night. They might hang around with the Red Storm for a while, but those bigger and stronger bodies eventually take their toll on the Highlanders, like it did the last two years against Seton Hall. The Highlanders were competitive for about 30 minutes or so, but then were worn down by the size of their opponents. If the Highlanders were able to get an upset in any of those road games you mentioned, Engles might have to run for mayor of Newark or have a street named after him.

The Highlanders’ best chances for road wins early on might come at Duquesne, Central Connecticut or UMass-Lowell. The Highlanders desperately need to win their home opener Monday night against Maine to keep a semblance of positive feelings in Newark.
Being the nation’s lone Division I independent team will hurt the Highlanders once again this season, as they play 11 road games to only four home games in November and December, when the schools in conferences are filling out their schedules with independent guarantees.

If the Highlanders can get to New Year’s Day with a .500 record, it would be nothing short of a miracle. NJIT has to find a league very soon in order to maintain its Division I standing, because the independent route simply won’t work.

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