Forgrave: Decision to keep the faith with St. John's now justified
FEB 06, 2014 4:26p ET
Part of being a sportswriter is no longer being a real sports fan. It becomes work: easy work, fun work, but still work. When the curtain gets pulled back, a bit of the shine can be taken off the teams and the players you grew up rooting for. It can make you a hardened cynic pretty quickly.
So instead of rooting hard for, say, the teams of my childhood, my loyalties these days lean more toward the coaches I most like, the programs that are most welcoming, the players whose stories are most inspirational.
Which is why I spent much of the first month of Big East conference play extremely frustrated with -- yet remaining extremely hopeful about -- St. John's.
This summer I traveled for a week with the Red Storm as they toured France, Italy and Spain for a basketball-slash-educational trip. I got to know everyone in the basketball program. I found head coach Steve Lavin to be one of the most incessantly positive and intellectual coaches I've met. I fell hard for certain players: De'Angelo Harrison and his tale of redemption after being kicked off the team last season; JaKarr Sampson and his obvious joy at being on a basketball court; Sir'Dominic Pointer and his Victor Oladipo-like motor; and point guard Rysheed Jordan, who has weathered all sorts of adversity his freshman year, from his best friend back home getting shot and killed while Jordan was on the Europe trip to his grandfather and mother taking ill during the season.
All of this is a preamble to me saying why, even after St. John's started conference play 0-5, I still held out hope (perhaps irrational, perhaps not) that the Red Storm could turn the season around and maybe, just maybe, make the NCAA tournament. I thought Lavin's talented guys could suddenly figure things out and tear off a 10-game winning streak. I saw them as a group that could get hot in March and get into the NCAA tournament by winning the Big East tournament. Since I watched this team start to gel this summer, I have always seen St. John's basketball as full of tantalizing possibilities.
And sure enough, since that stumbling start, St. John's seems to finally be putting things together, winning five of its past six games leading into Sunday night's rematch with Creighton on Fox Sports 1. Beat Creighton, the No. 12 team in the country, and my irrational love affair with this team will look a lot more rational.
You might hear of others starting to fall for this team, too.
Lavin has said all along that he thought St. John's, which last season was one of the least experienced teams in college basketball, would hit its stride in late January or early February. He was right.
I spent some time with Lavin recently after the best win of the Red Storm's season so far, a 15-point blowout of Marquette at Madison Square Garden. He spoke about the "school of hard knocks" that St. John's has been through this season. It battled until the end against now-No. 1 Syracuse in December. Four of its five Big East losses have been heartbreakers, including a rally from 18 down to tie the game against Creighton -- only to lose on a Doug McDermott fall-away 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left.
"I had a feeling this would be a team that would gel by late January or early February," Lavin said. "All those games (the close losses) were for the taking, and we didn't get them.
"We're not here for moral victories, hence the disappointment. But I haven't had a group that fights back in my coaching career like this crew does. It doesn't matter where we are or who we're playing, down 18, down 15, on the road, in the Garden, we're going to come back in games. It's one of the more remarkable traits of any team in my coaching career. We have a team that's down 18 and we know we're going to come back. The fight, the grit, the character and resiliency of this team is first rate."
It'll take plenty of fighting back for the Red Storm to get out of this hole.
But they're already partway there. What accounts for the turnaround?
Part of it is that the 0-5 start to conference play was a bit misleading. Plenty of people say a loss is a loss, and that's true when it comes to win-loss record. That's why St. John's is ranked in the 60s in RPI rankings, a ranking that wouldn't get the team into the NCAA tournament.
But I'm of the view that not all losses are created equal. If Team A loses a one-possession game to Team X, then Team B loses a 25-point blowout to that same Team X, I'm going to say that Team A is a better team than Team B. That's why St. John's is ranked about 20 spots higher in a ranking system like KenPom.com, which takes into account margin of victory.
But enough of the excuse-making. There are plenty of bad losses and plenty of good losses on the Red Storm's resume. The bigger question is this: Why do things seem to be clicking for St. John's now?
I asked Lavin this, and his answer was about as simple as you can get. It all comes down to freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan.
Jordan's talent was always obvious. But he started the season slowly, as many freshmen do, and having to make frequent trips back to Philadelphia to visit ill family members didn't help. Since Big East play started, however, his minutes have steadily increased, and so has his poise and confidence. The Red Storm offense is running through him now, and it's running well, becoming more efficient with each game.
When St. John's moves the ball on offense, like it has the past several games, the team plays great -- and looks great, too. When St. John's doesn't move the ball, you see a stagnant, stand-around offense where players almost look uncomfortable playing together. It's an offense that's frequently fueled by its pressing defense, similar in ambition to Louisville's national title team last season with a near-constant press that aims to lead to transition offense.
When these guys are running and rolling, they're fun to watch. And might be hard to stop.
"We know we have a sense of urgency," sharpshooter Max Hooper said when I asked about the team's mindset. "If not, all the hype would have been for nothing. I wouldn't use the word desperation. I'd say a sense of urgency. We're backed into a corner."
The Red Storm can't afford more than a couple more losses in a parity-filled Big East before this talented team will pack its bags for the NIT. Let's be honest and take all my personal feelings out of it: Even if they've been playing as well as anyone in the Big East lately, this team will likely be NIT-bound, unless it gets a Hail Mary of a Big East tournament championship.
But I can't take my emotions out of it. I'm a fan, you know? I feel St. John's is in the middle of a big, magical run. I like these guys, and I believe in these guys, and I still believe -- rational or not -- that we could look back in March and call St. John's the most surprising team in the country over the final six weeks of the regular season.
Yeah, I'm a sportswriter. But it turns out I'm still a sports fan, and in this case I still believe, no matter how big the odds seem.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.