Fordham fans remember Chris Obekpa well from his 11 blocked shots against Rams in 2012, and junior forward will have chance to repeat effort when St. John's takes on Fordham in Holiday Festival Sunday. (Photo courtesy of the New York Post)
At 7-1 on the year, and the 24th-ranked team in the nation, St. John's is off to its best start under Steve Lavin, now in his fifth season at the helm since replacing Norm Roberts in 2010.
This isn't the same Red Storm team that has become notorious for largely forgettable early-season losses to teams the likes of St. Bonaventure, San Francisco and UNC Asheville. Rather, this year's roster is a collection of upperclassmen who are out to prove that their three years of underachieving are just a mere bump on the road to the school's second NCAA Tournament in five years. A 17-2 run to close out an impressive road victory at the Carrier Dome against Syracuse in front of the largest crowd to attend a Division I game this season, one fueled by the magnum opus of Phil Greene, has already given St. John's a potentially season-defining win just five weeks into the year.
Next up for the team that got the monkey off its back against their former Big East rival Orange is Fordham, marking the sixth consecutive season where the Red Storm and Rams lock horns against one another, doing so inside Madison Square Garden for the fourth straight year as part of the Holiday Festival, which features Manhattan and Rutgers on the undercard. Last December, in a performance Fordham would like to forget, St. John's posted their largest margin of victory in recent years, obliterating the Rams by the final of 104-58 in a game where Pecora reluctantly admitted "everything they shot went in" while Jon Severe struggled through a 1-for-21 nightmare of a game.
Fordham enters the matchup at 3-4 on the season, rebounding from two crushing home defeats to UMass Lowell and Maryland Eastern Shore, setbacks that have placed the fate of head coach Tom Pecora under an even greater microscope. Regardless, the Rams have picked up a solid start to the year from Eric Paschall, and if Christian Sengfelder's 21-point, 11-rebound effort against Monmouth is any indication, the mounds of talent in this year's freshman class are developing on schedule.
In what has become an annual tradition for us in much the same vein as Fordham and St. John's taking the floor against one another, we welcome our friend Norman Rose of Rumble in the Garden back again to answer some Red Storm-related questions for us in advance of Sunday's matchup. We returned the favor for Norman earlier today, and you can find our answers here:
Jaden Daly: Having started 7-1, what has set this particular St. John's team apart from each of Steve Lavin's other three Red Storm teams?
Norman Rose: Comparing this St. John's team to the last three seasons is easy - they have senior talent, like the 2011 team. The players know each other and play for each other.
But even more importantly - this team's defense, which has led the charge, has been unconventional. St. John's plays four-guard lineups, and all of the players get after the ball on defense in one way or another. That unconventionality has really worked, and Chris Obekpa is actually battling for rebounds, while Sir`Dominic Pointer is let loose to play his game, as opposed to being yanked for a more conventional forward or a sniper on the wing.
It's still early, and that 7-1 record has included a number of teams with poor shooting performances from the free throw line. But overall, the team has been impressive in their cohesion and their tenacity.
JD: Through the first eight games, is there a particular player that has impressed you most with your contributions?
NR: Sir`Dominic Pointer is a monster right now. He looks like a player who could have been the highest-rated recruit in that 2011 recruiting class. He must have taken classes at Ball So Hard University's Extension Program last summer - he is on it, and hitting his free throws, and rebounding. He's having a breakout year - not something one often says of a senior.
JD: Phil Greene is enjoying arguably the best stretch of his career right now. Is it safe to say that he is now the firmly entrenched second option behind D'Angelo Harrison, and if so, what changes has he made to become more formidable on offense?
NR: I suppose? "Best stretch" is an important phrase right now. He is certainly the second in the bunch of bananas to Harrison in the backcourt, especially with Rysheed Jordan coming off the bench and struggling with turnovers/ decision-making.
Phil Greene hasn't changed anything, actually - not from last year. He's getting a higher percentage of shots, being asked to be more aggressive fromt he outset of games, is all. He still takes almost-exclusively jump shots, doesn't draw fouls, and protects the ball.
Greene started off the first four games 0/8 from beyond the arc. He's been streaky, and his next period of growth is maintaining this excellence - even while taking jump shots, the shot that every player knows sometimes just won't fall.
He has worked hard on his skills to make that work, though, so he may have finally hit the point where fans can expect that kind of shooting game in and game out.
JD: Fordham is no stranger to Chris Obekpa after his 11-block record showing in 2012, but is he still the Red Storm's X-factor? Also, who else should the Rams fear on the St. John's roster?
NR: Yes. Obekpa is playing better defense, attempting to play offense, and still the linchpin of the Red Storm's defense.
D`Angelo Harrison, of course, is the man to watch for Fordham; after eight games, his shooting percentages are only so-so, and he will relish opportunities to get back on the scoring track in a local game like this. And once you give him a taste of scoring, he can't help but go back for more and more and more....
JD: Aside from the obvious "get out in transition, press, and run," what are the other keys to victory for St. John's, and what do you feel Fordham will need to do to have a shot?
NR: St. John's has to take the game seriously and not make unforced errors. Fordham won't force a lot of turnovers, but every basketball player loves to see a loose ball fall into their hands and an open lane to the basket. Foul trouble, too, could always be an issue, as could an urge to experiment with the lineups. The Red Storm bench isn't particularly impactful now, especially in the big men Amar Alibegovic and Christian Jones.
JD: Finally, exactly how high is the ceiling for the Red Storm, and after the hot start, what record in conference play gets them into the NCAA Tournament?
NR: I think 10-8 gets them the NCAA bid. I think. But if there is a bad loss in the out-of-conference, and the Johnnies can't pull a win off against one of the top-three teams, but instead feast on the bottom of the league? And if Syracuse continues to be mediocre? There could be a little sweat on Selection Sunday, sure.
The ceiling? Second place in the Big East. Maybe first, but the league looks like a minefield filled with height and sneaky-good teams. This style of play takes a lot of energy and effort, which the Johnnies can deliver; but the offense has shown warts, winning with spurts of competence at times. That has to be a worry.