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St. John's desperate for win vs. Villanova

1/9/2014
Jakarr Sampson and the Red Storm are looking forward to their marquee matchup with Villanova. Howard Smith/USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK -- Two days before a critical game against No. 8 Villanova, St. John's coach Steve Lavin has not settled on a starting lineup.

Lavin stunned fans Saturday by sending out walk-on Khadim Ndiaye and little-used Felix Balamou for the opening tip at Georgetown. The Red Storm fell behind quickly, were down 42-16 at halftime, and trailed by as many as 33 in the second half in an embarrassing defeat.

"This week we’ve just been kind of continuing to try different combinations," Lavin said Thursday. "We’re still going today, and tomorrow, two more days of practice. And the kids know as always, that you earn it by what you do the week of the game."

Twelve different players have started at least one game for St. John's this year. Lavin has already used eight different starting lineups in the first 14 games of the season.

"It’d be different if we were undefeated, if we were 15-0 or something, then you're looking to keep things as is," Lavin said. "But if you’re still growing, still developing as a team, the idea is to elevate our level of play, to put us in the best possible situation to be competitive from the outset of a game through the end of the game."

One player likely to return to the starting five is sophomore forward JaKarr Sampson, the team's second-leading scorer (12.0 ppg) and leading rebounder (6.6 rpg). He came off the bench for the first time in his career against Georgetown, admitted afterward that it affected his ability to get in the flow of the game, and finished with just six points.

"JaKarr’s had a great week of practice," Lavin said, "probably his best three days of his career in terms of three consecutive days."

Ndiaye is almost certainly headed back to the bench, despite making his only shot and taking a charge in seven minutes against the Hoyas.

"I don’t see him on the short term being central to this upcoming stretch of games," Lavin said, "but he’s someone who we really value as a student-athlete on our team and I’m really proud of his development and just being ready to step into the starting lineup in a game of that magnitude."

The larger issue is, Lavin has hardly settled on a rotation, despite his team nearing the halfway point of its season. Thirteen different players saw the court in the first half alone versus Georgetown, making it very difficult to build any chemistry or consistency.

The players made available to the media Thursday downplayed the lineup issue.

"I think different starting lineups, it doesn’t matter -- we’re all capable of starting, we have a lot of great pieces on this team," guard Phil Greene said. "It’s just very competitive, it’s a very competitive team. It keeps practices going, keeps everybody on their toes."

"Coach I feel like always makes the right decisions," said fellow guard and leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison. "I think everybody on the team feels that way. He started Khadim, Khadim hit a jump shot and took a charge, he didn’t hurt us. I respect Coach for that, that’s a big move by him. He came in and produced. Hopefully whoever starts on Saturday, we’ll be ready for it."

They better be ready. Villanova arrives in New York with a 14-1 record and that gaudy national ranking. The Wildcats caught the nation's attention in late November by winning the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, thanks to back-to-back wins over Kansas and Iowa. They lost at No. 2 Syracuse by 16 on Dec. 28, but have opened Big East play with three straight wins -- at Butler (by three in overtime), versus Providence (by 30) and at shorthanded Seton Hall (by 16) on Wednesday.

Coach Jay Wright's team is 31st in the country in scoring (81.3 ppg), and 11th in 3-point field goals per game (9.1). Three players average at least 14 points per contest -- 6-foot-7 junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston (16.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg), 6-foot-6 senior swingman James Bell (14.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and 6-foot-6 junior guard Darrun Hilliard II (14.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg).

"We’re very anxious to play [Villanova]," Greene said. "We went back to the drawing board, we practiced very hard, the team came together, is gelling, nobody is down on themselves."

Lavin continues to predict good things for this squad, despite its underwhelming 9-5 start. "We’re still just as bold and optimistic about where we could be come February," he said.

But February won't matter if St. John's doesn't win a few games in January. The Red Storm are 0-2 in the Big East and 0-2 against Top 25 opponents, with Villanova the last ranked team on their schedule.

If Saturday's game at Madison Square Garden isn't a must-win, it's pretty darn close.