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COURTSIDE: A Revived Front Court

Sedee+Keita
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COURTSIDE: A Revived Front Court

Sedee Keita

Sedee Keita

Torch Photo/ Spencer Clinton

Sedee Keita

Torch Photo/ Spencer Clinton

Torch Photo/ Spencer Clinton

Sedee Keita

Sean Okula, Staff Writer

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Preseason chatter is fueled by overzealous narratives. Bold assertions can be made without any frame of reference. It’s fun, but often frivolous.

In that spirit, the rejuvenated St. John’s frontcourt needs a presumptuous, New York-centric tagline. The New York Block Exchange? The Queens Skyscrapers? The Midtown Tunnel (where the lanes are always jammed)?

We’ll work on it.

What’s certain is that this group’s talent — assorted talent at that — provides a different set of skills to complement the others.

“Athleticism and versatility,” said Marvin Clark II, the lone returnee among last year’s big men. “We should be among the best frontcourts in the nation.”

The redshirt senior is confident, a product of his ranking status. He takes pride in helping the new faces with their initiation, learning a little about their game along the way.

On freshman Josh Roberts? “[He’s] showed the most improvement from summer to now,” Clark II said. “Especially because coming in he was just really raw. Football player, just an athlete. Now he’s learning the game, and you can see him learning the game as he plays it.”

What about Sedee Keita? “He’s a freak of nature. 6-foot-10, 6-foot-11. Fast. Moves great laterally. Skilled, strong, blocks shots, great timing. I think he’s gonna be our most important piece going into the season,” Clark II said.

Albeit new to the lineup, Keita was around the team during his redshirt transfer year. He built up a rapport with Clark II, who thinks the South Carolina import will help him get some open looks.

“He sets great screens,” Clark II said. “For me being a shooter and being able to play off the pick-and-roll, it’s going to be a great added dimension to our team.”

That spells bad news for the rest of the Big East. Clark II, a Kansas City native, shot 41 percent from three-point range a year ago. Defenders aiming to neutralize his deep stroke could leave a dangerous Keita unguarded near the hoop.

St. John’s not-so-secret weapon figures to make his impact on the other side of the ball. Listed at 6-foot-9-inches, he’s aided by a beefy 235 pound frame. The transfer of Tariq Owens seemed to have left an opening in the paint, an opening Keita could fill quite easily.

“I’m just trying to be an anchor on the defensive side,” Keita said. “Last year, we pretty much played with six players and we still kept up scoring. We just didn’t play defense.”

Keita blocked 11 shots in limited action with South Carolina during the 2016-17 season. That figures to translate to an increased workload, though Coach Mullin hopes his perimeter defenders can keep the ball out of his shot swatter’s domain.

“I think Sedee’s gonna be a big addition, offensively and defensively,” Mullin said. “I think our added depth and experience on the perimeter should allow us to better contain the ball and rely less on the blocked shot, which Tariq [Owens] was really good at.”

“I think we’ll contain the ball better and be an overall better defensive team,” he added.

Vertically challenged for most of his tenure at the helm, Mullin will have reinforcements to deploy in the middle. Up against Keita, three-star recruit Josh Roberts clocks in at 6-foot-9-inches and 210 pounds.

With Clark’s praise, he just might run his way straight into the rotation.

“Just doing what I do,” the Alabama native said. “Using my athleticism, running the court at full speed.”

Athleticism was on full display at Tip-Off, though from a relatively unheralded source. Sophomore L.J. Figueroa greeted the fans with one-handed jams, stuffing the ball through the hoop with ease. The junior college transfer could slip under the radar on a St. John’s roster filled with notable imports, but his scoring ability can’t be missed.

He shot 48 percent from beyond the arc in his lone junior college season, and his 21.4 points per game earned him a spot on the NJCAA All-American First Team. Rebounds are a cinch with his wide wingspan, something he credits in diversifying his game.

“It helps me in a lot of ways,” he said. “Getting offensive rebounds, deflections, tips. Just a bunch of little things in the game that I need.”

Acclimation to the court has come easily, but acclimating to his surroundings has been even easier. A Boston-area native, he says his time in a Florida High School and at a Texas college left him feeling out of touch with his Latin roots.

“I have a lot of Spanish people around me,” he said. “Being down in Florida and Texas, I was standing out. Just being here makes me feel at home.”

The human side of sports is often overlooked amid the unrelenting desire to win, but comfortability can be key in an athlete’s performance. New York, the fans and especially his teammates, so he says, have embraced Figueroa with open arms.

“All our senior leaders,” he said.

“All our veteran leaders. Shamorie, Marv, Simon, they all helped me. They showed me what I’m going to get into and what to expect.”

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COURTSIDE: A Revived Front Court