New Big East brings a fresh look for an old power in St. John's


St. John's was a classic Big East power in the late 80s and early 90s. Now, with a new-look league, the Red Storm may be poised to rise again.

The days when the St. John's Redmen could count on 20 wins and the NCAA Tournament every year are long gone. Those memories reside in the rafters of Carneseca Arena and are recalled only with the occasional story of a sweater-clad coach and a packed Madison Square Garden.

But the glory days of St. John's basketball don't all have to be in the past.

2013-14 brings a new season, and just as significantly for the team now called the Red Storm, a new league. Sure, it's still the Big East, but the conference looks nothing like the 15-team monster it was a year ago.

Gone are basketball powers such as Syracuse, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Louisville. And gone is nearby rival Rutgers. Now, St. John's has a unique opportunity: to once again become a Big East titan that will be a force for years to come.

The pieces are there, for sure. Out of the teams remaining in the Big East, Georgetown is the only one that is set up to field a national contender each year. Villanova, Xavier, Creighton and Marquette all have their years and will always be formidable opponents, but the Big East is lacking that star power that it has boasted for the last two decades.

It is time for St. John's to fill that void. Led by a relatively young head coach in Steve Lavin and buoyed by a young roster, the Red Storm can become that team consistently associated with Big East success.

It starts this year, and the Red Storm are on the right track. Leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison returns after sitting out the final six games of last year with a suspension. The rising junior guard averaged 17.8 points per game last season and will need to demonstrate leadership on and off the court to prove to Lavin that he deserves to keep his spot on the team.

Reigning Big East Rookie of the Year Jakarr Sampson joins Harrison as the other consistent scoring threat. He could have entered the NBA Draft after last season, but chose to stay in school. Phil Greene IV and Sir'Dominic Pointer also return. The two of them, plus Sampson and Harrison, accounted for 77 percent of the team's scoring last season.

Add Chris Obekpa, who averaged four blocks per game last year, and St. John's has a nucleus that will scare any team in the league. And that's all without even mentioning Rysheed Jordan; the point guard out of Philly was ranked as the third-best in his position by ESPN for the class of 2013.

With that roster, there's no doubt that St. John's can compete. The Red Storm will have a chance to prove it even before conference play begins when they face Wisconsin on Nov. 8 and old Big East rival Syracuse at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 15.

But proving you belong with the big boys takes more than just a few marquee wins in one year, and St. John's is eyeing success beyond 2013-14. Lavin is a recruiter who showed he can keep New York City talent from escaping to the powers nearby, even before there was much of a reason to play in Queens. And looking forward, Lavin might be ready to strike again. Isaiah Whitehead, Terry Larrier and Khadeem Carrington are all highly touted 2014 New York high school students, and all of them are considering St. John's. Though Whitehead may be a longshot, Larrier has placed the Red Storm in his top 10 and St. John's is still aggressively pursuing Carrington.

If the talent keeps flowing in, the fans should soon follow. The last time St. John's was consistently competitive, even as recently as the early 2000s, fans flocked to see the Red Storm. They'd sell out Madison Square Garden and St. John's would have a real home-court advantage in the Big East Tournament. The Red Storm's most recent tournament championship was in 2000, when they beat UConn by 10 in the title game, much to the delight of the crowd, mostly wearing red. In the last few years, however, Madison Square Garden has been much more of a neutral venue for local teams such as UConn and Syracuse, as their success has brought more fans to Manhattan, while more St. John's supporters have stayed home.

That can change in the new Big East. The talented teams that Lavin has shown he can produce will not have to face the same level of competition, both in the league and in the New York market. Early on, the Red Storm can beat up on schools like Butler and Xavier, who have name recognition but are likely to face a tough road in the near future. Their games against Marquette have been known to become classics. And the occasional win over Georgetown wouldn't hurt either. It also helps that local rival Seton Hall just can't seem to put the right pieces together to field a team capable of living up to its potential.

A roster full of local products who can win games will sell tickets just about anywhere.

With only a month left until Midnight Madness, Lavin and the Red Storm find themselves in a curious yet oddly-enviable spot. They're not National Championship contenders by any means, but they're worth watching. Expect to see a team in New York this season that will challenge for a top-tier spot in the new-look Big East. Beyond that? It's anybody's guess, but don't be surprised if the Red Storm of tomorrow start to look an awful like the Redmen of years past.

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