Welcome to the jungle
The names on the back of the jerseys were the same, but everything else about the St. John’s basketball team looked different in their 100-42 drubbing of Division-III Westmont Saturday at Carnesecca Arena.
Despite having four of last year’s starting five available, head coach Steve Lavin’s starting lineup in his unofficial debut featured three new starters, including freshman forward Dwayne Polee, senior guard Dwight Hardy and senior forward Justin Brownlee in addition to returning starters D.J. Kennedy and Malik Boothe.
The new small-ball lineup, with three guards and no true post presence, got off to a flying start, hitting its first seven shots and racing out to a 16-0 lead to open the game.
After playing almost exclusively man-to-man on defense all of last year, the Red Storm displayed a 2-2-1 three quarter-court press after made baskets, and a 2-3 matchup zone for most of the night.
It worked well against Westmont, who committed 27 turnovers and shot just 33 percent from the field.
“I feel like the zone is great for us,” said Kennedy. “We’re athletic; we cover almost every spot on the floor with the zone and stop people from penetrating into the middle so I definitely feel like it’s to our advantage.”
Many players played different roles than fans were accustomed to last year. Kennedy, the Johnnies’ leading scorer last year, played the role of playmaker for the most part. He scored 10 points on just three shots and dished out six assists with no turnovers.
“I just go into the game and see how we’re built, see what the defense gives me and see the pace of the game,” he said. “Today, that’s what the defense gave me: a lot of playmaking from me and Dwight [Hardy] both. As you can see firsthand, we don’t even have to score as much. We just need to know
our teammates can ball.”
Hardy finished the game with 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting in 23 minutes. He logged significant time at the point guard position when he was paired in the backcourt with senior guard Paris Horne, a combination that was hardly ever on the floor at the same time last year.
“I was comfortable (at the point),” said Hardy. “They worked with me throughout the whole summer on ball-handling and being able to run the team at the point guard position. Once Coach Lav initiated me at the point I just went right to it and did what I do best.”
Hardy, who started only two games last season, has emerged in the preseason along with Kennedy. Although the two ceded the spotlight for much of the night to players like Brownlee and Polee, their efforts were not lost on Lavin.
“I liked the fact that Dwight Hardy and D.J. Kennedy, two players who are clearly going to be very productive and go-to weapons for us, had a quiet night in the first half but didn’t force anything,” said Lavin. “They kept their poise, did other things to help us, and they contributed with their passing, their screening, and most importantly, didn’t let [adversity] bother them.”
After committing three early turnovers, Brownlee settled down and finished the game as the Johnnies’ leading scorer with 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting in 23 minutes. Polee and Horne finished with 12 each as five players finished in double figures, while Boothe recorded nine points and 12 assists.
Two top-tier recruits were watching the game on official visits to the St. John’s campus. Norvel Pelle and Amir Garrett, the 19th and 51st-ranked recruits in the class of 2011 according to Rivals, sat behind the St. John’s bench. The student sections alternated chants of “We want Garrett” with “We want Pelle” in an effort to woo the future stars to Queens. Both have St. John’s in their final two schools.
St. John’s opens the season on Nov. 15 at 2 a.m. against St. Mary’s as part of ESPN’s 24-hour college basketball tip-off.