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The trek to the NCAA Tournament doesn't resemble a journey so much as it does a school year. From the preseason, when the teacher and his students first meet, until March Madness, when final exams are taken, the college basketball schedule is geared toward teaching those students to master their craft. But those who have been through the rigors of the NCAA school year know it's best not to enter finals cold, that you need to take the pulse of your charges along the way that you need to take a few midterm exams.
After dropping a 92-88 overtime classic to second-ranked Duke in the first of four consecutive midseason tests, it appears coach Mike Jarvis's St. John's class may have an outside shot at acing the tournament.
That picture should become clearer this week after the Red Storm travel to Syracuse before returning to Madison Square Garden to take on No. 1 Connecticut and a Miami team that beat St. John's earlier this season. If nothing else, New Yorkers will find out if a team not ranked in the preseason Top 25 has really progressed far enough to be considered the ninth best team in the country.
The modest expectations that greeted this St. John's team followed an offseason that saw the departure of coach Fran Fraschilla and the graduations of leading scorer Felipe Lopez and leading rebounder Zendon Hamilton. But with top-notch players still in uniform, such as forward Ron Artest, and top-rated newcomers such as freshman point-guard wunderkind Erick Barkley, former George Washington coach Jarvis has taken the Johnnies to unforeseen heights.
"The real surprise," says CBS college basketball analyst Billy Packer, "is that they haven't had any one player not perform up to expectations. I think that's unusual sometimes when you have a new coach going into a program. Maybe you miss out on a certain aspect of a player that you were anticipating, or you have a new freshman coming in and they don't quite measure up. But I think all the aspects of St. John's have blended together very nicely and they're maximizing their performance."
The primary new ingredient in this mix has been the first-year guard from Brooklyn, Barkley. In less than three months in a Red Storm uniform, the former McDonald's All-American has demonstrated the ability to break down Division I defenses with aggressive drives to the basket while also stretching out those defenses with a lethal, if inconsistent, outside shooting touch. But it is the young point guard's maturity that is most impressive. Held to shooting only 33 percent from the floor against Duke, other aspects of Barkley's always-confident game kept the Blue Devils defense honest and allowed him to gather 11 assists.
"Barkley can play with that recklessness," says ESPN and CBS basketball analyst Bill Raftery, "a controlled recklessness. He feels he can make shots and he can get guys the ball in places that can hurt the opponent. He's sort of the one guy that makes St. John's understand that they can play with people. There's a fearlessness on this team that they can go and compete with everybody."
Never was that more apparent than on Sunday, when shooting guard Bootsy Thornton, playing up to the "No Fear" tattoo above his left ankle, torched Duke for 40 points and pulled down 12 rebounds while playing 44 of 45 minutes. As if to accentuate Raftery's point, Artest chipped in 22 points and a critical three-point shot to tie the game with 1.1 seconds left.
"Today is just another example of how much this team believes in themselves and in each other," said Jarvis after the Duke game. "This is an opportunity most teams, most coaches, most players never have: to be on CBS, to play in a sold-out Madison Square Garden and to prove to everybody they can play with anybody."
Barkley may be the engine that makes the Red Storm go, but the cargo he's pulling generates a lot of momentum on its own. Before going down indefinitely with a broken right wrist, center Tyrone Grant was averaging almost nine boards a game while Thornton has eased the loss of Lopez by canning 16 points a night. The focal point of any pregame chalk talk, though, begins with the multitalented Artest, attention the Queensbridge native seems determined to deflect during games.
"He's such a superstar talent," says ESPN and ABC college basketball analyst Dick Vitale. "He's physically strong. He's got range. He's explosive. But I think he's one of the most unselfish stars who I've ever seen. If you look at the number of shots that he takes [11 per game], he's not a guy looking for stats, he's looking for wins."
With a propensity to steal the ball on the floor and off the backboard, Artest also helps key a defense that forces more than 18 turnovers a game, and a team that holds a positive stealturnover ratio of almost four, good for second best in the Big East.
"Defensively [St. John's] came at us hard," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils gave away the ball 23 times. "They were disrupting our offense and, as a result, we made bad decisions."