Cunniff’s Corner: Arizona will be Young Johnnies First Test

With all due respect to William & Mary, Lehigh and UMBC, St. John’s first test of the 2011-12 season will come on Nov. 17 when they take on No. 15 Arizona at Madison Square Garden.


Yes, the Red Storm were tested by both William & Mary and Lehigh, but that said more about St. John’s than its competition. The Johnnies looked like they were a team with six newcomers against both teams, especially in the first half of games.


The Johnnies seemed to correct many of their issues against UMBC, going into halftime with a lead for the first time this season, and blowing the Retrievers out of Carnesecca Arena in the second half.


But against Arizona, we’ll know whether that corner was really turned. The Wildcats are coming off an Elite Eight appearance in last year’s NCAA Tournament and are led by guard Kyle Fogg, who is averaging 14.7 points per game. Fogg is a senior with more Division I experience himself than the whole St. John’s team put together. The bright lights of Madison Square Garden will not affect him, nor will they affect Solomon Hill, a junior who averages 10.3 points and eight rebounds per game and was another key member of the team’s NCAA Tournament run last season.


Against Arizona, St. John’s will encounter a team that has just as much — if not more — talent than they do and more depth and experience. In short, the Red Storm will encounter the type of team that they will see all season in the Big East.


That’s why this game is so important as a litmus test for this St. John’s team. To this point, the players have been brimming with confidence.  That confidence is why they didn’t panic when down 16 to Lehigh in the second half, or when they trailed at halftime in their first-ever regular season game at St. John’s against William & Mary. If they get blown out by Arizona, will they be able to shake
that off and keep their heads up? Or will self-doubt start to creep in, robbing the Johnnies of the swagger that they need to be successful this year with the deck stacked against them?


Of course, there’s no saying whether they will get blown out. Sophomore guard Nurideen Lindsey turned in a performance for the ages against UMBC, coming one assist shy of St. John’s first triple-double since the turn of the millennium.


And the Wildcats haven’t exactly come out of the gates firing on all cylinders this season, either. They needed a second-half comeback of their own in their last game, trailing Ball State with less than seven minutes in the second half.


St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin and the rest of the coaching staff have praised their team’s maturity up to this point in the season. It’s an adjective that few would have thought would have applied to this team, especially so early in their St. John’s careers.

But so far, mature is exactly what they’ve been. They’ve gone through just about as much adversity as any team can since the fall semester started, both on and off the court. To this point, they have been better off for it.


After needing second-half bursts to defeat both William & Mary and Lehigh, teams that should have been handled in a much more straightforward way, the players didn’t point fingers at anybody except themselves. Stith displayed the leadership that has been expected of him, blaming himself for not having the team prepared out of the gate, while other players admitted that they weren’t ready to play.


But will that poise and maturity hold up under the intense spotlight of Madison Square Garden? Lavin said that the players would have butterflies when they first play at the Garden. It’ll be a lot different playing in primetime at the World’s Most Famous Arena than playing on a Sunday afternoon at Carnesecca.


Whatever butterflies the players have will need to be gone by tip-off, because there isn’t any room for error against Arizona. St. John’s can’t fall behind by double digits and expect to come back like they did against Lehigh. Even falling behind 10-3, as they did against UMBC, could cause the wheels to fall off. Playing against Top-25 teams with a seven-man rotation and six newcomers leaves no room for error.


We still don’t know enough about St. John’s to predict how good they’ll be once Big East play begins. But after they play Arizona, the picture will start to become clearer.