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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."
Unquestionably talented, Jarvis's club has been nurtured this season with a schedule that appears perfectly constructed for getting a team ready for the postseason.
"It's almost tailor-made for a team in transition that you want to bring along," says Packer of the Red Storm's schedule. "They played Purdue and Stanford early, two teams you have to assume are going to be NCAA tournament teams and maybe even go deep into the tournament. Even though they lost both of those games, it helped their development as a team. Then they've played some teams where they were able to gain some confidence because they were superior in physical ability, so I like the balance of their schedule."
With about a month left to play after this week's tests, Jarvis will have time not only to rehabilitate the mind-set of his club should they falter, but to harness the momentum of a St. John's team if they happen to win themselves into the headlines.
"It's a pretty big task for anyone," says Packer of the St. John's prospects this week. "In this case, I don't think a couple of losses will prevent St. John's from having a good year, but [a couple of wins] could make for a great year."
Indeed, the implications are far-reaching for both the team and the conference this week. Nestled in second place behind Connecticut in the Big East, the relatively inexperienced Red Storm can ill afford to give the undefeated Huskies the mental edge let alone another win they would take into the Big East tournament should they roll through the Johnnies this Saturday.
Unlike earlier this season, the Red Storm won't have the benefit of warming up for their big game with overmatched opponents. St. John's faces a schizophrenic Syracuse squad on Wednesday in the Carrier Dome, where the Orangemen are 8-3 this year.
"Once the players get into practice, they'll know we're preparing for Syracuse," said associate head coach Kevin Clark. "You can't allow the loss to Duke to stick in your mind. Once they get in that dome, they'll know you can't go back."
From a certain point of view, the Duke game offered Jarvis and his club a breather at least from conference play. But not from conference duty.
"The Atlantic Coast Conference this year is a top-heavy league," says Packer. "It does not have the balance it normally projects. So for a St. John's to show that they are more competitive with Duke than any of the six teams in the ACC have shown, I think that bodes well for the Big East teams who may be on the bubble at tournament time. Those teams could say, "Hey, wait a second. Our league is deeper and stronger than another league.' "
Midterms for the Red Storm were made all the more difficult when Grant went down, an injury that opened a hole in the middle of the defense. After watching Duke All-American center Elton Brand essentially set up house under the basket and racked up 16 points, 12 rebounds, and seven blocks, St. John's will have to mix-and-match in the paint against a Syracuse team that averages taller than 6-8 along its front line and a Connecticut club featuring the inconsistent but dangerous Jake Voskuhl, a load at 6-11 and 235 pounds.
"When you don't have your number one post defender, well, a guy like Brand is tough enough as it is," observes Packer. "Connecticut doesn't have [as impressive] an offensive presence on the inside, but I think Connecticut is a team that has great overall balance and probably matches Duke in the depth of that balance."
Short-handed or not, it's time for St. John's to cram those playbooks and sharpen their skills it's test time.