It is impossible to predict just how well the St. John’s men’s basketball team will bounce back from the loss of D.J. Kennedy.
Sure, the team played a resilient 35 minutes sans-D.J. against Syracuse in the Big East tournament despite coming up just short at the end, and by every indication the players and coaches are doing and saying the right things—publicly, at least—to ensure that the Red Storm can be just as contentious without Kennedy as they would be with him.
But you can’t just put ice on a torn ACL and take a few days off. D.J. Kennedy, as unfortunate as it sounds, has played his last game as a member of the St. John’s Red Storm, and as determined and confident as the team sounds to move on, the reality of Kennedy on the sideline in sweats won’t sink in until just before the ball is tipped against Gonzaga.
While the ‘Do It For D.J.’ campaign has been a great tool to further unite the team and school during a very improbable season, nobody mentioned it in breaking down St. John’s and Gonzaga in the selection shows. No Gonzaga player, coach, or fan probably cares about the Red Storm’s rallying cry.
After all, Gonzaga went 24-9 and won its conference, earning its 13th-straight bid to the NCAA tournament. Though an 11 seed, the Bulldogs have experience on their side. It may not be the experience of nine seniors who have played with each other for four years, or a coach with six-straight NCAA tournament appearances already under his belt, but it is experience that no aspect of this Red Storm team, from top to bottom, has—NCAA tournament experience.
The players haven’t been there and this coaching staff has not been there, and not only does St. John’s have to replace the X’s and O’s of the 10.4 points and 5.6 rebounds that Kennedy averaged per game this season, it has to do so while playing at a level it has never experienced and cannot replicate in preparation of it.
Here’s the thing: They can’t do that by simply putting Malik Boothe back into the starting lineup and moving Hardy back to the wing. They can’t do that by splitting minutes between Boothe and sophomore point guard Malik Stith, as they did during the remainder of the Syracuse game.
Neither Boothe nor Stith make a tremendous enough dent in the box score to replace Kennedy’s production without a drop off, and it would be unfair to expect them to match Kennedy’s stat lines.
But increased minutes for Boothe and Stith would take away an even greater weapon for the defensive end. Each
possesses a talent for disruption on the defensive end, the unique athletic ability to knock a ball away or grab a loose ball that their competitors cannot reach, providing the club with short bursts of energy throughout the game.
What makes this talent so special to the Red Storm as a whole is that, with Kennedy also on the floor, head coach Steve Lavin can put either point guard on the floor as a means of intensifying an already staunch St. John’s defense, which forced 16.1 turnovers (+3.1 margin) per game this season.
Because the Red Storm don’t have the offensive firepower to score 80 points per game even with Kennedy, creating extra possessions and converting points off turnovers has become imperative for the team’s success. If Boothe and Stith
can’t be strategically inserted for key defensive purposes, chances are it would disrupt the intensity of the Red Storm’s smothering press and cut down on the forced turnovers.
The other problem that this creates lies within that transition offense, after the turnover is forced. Though Boothe and Stith can lead a fast break, neither can finish as consistently or effectively as Kennedy could, either by scoring or getting to the free throw line.
And while it is entirely possible for the two point guards to step in and fill the void Kennedy leaves behind, expect to see a different St. John’s team—even if the change is slight—when the team takes the floor against Gonzaga.