New York Colleges: God'sgift Achiuwa

Rapid Reaction: Providence 84, SJU 83

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16
NEW YORK -- Some quick thoughts on St. John's' 84-83 loss to Providence on Thursday at Carnesecca Arena:

What it means: This St. John's season is turning into a disaster.

The Red Storm suffered their fifth consecutive loss to begin Big East play -- and by far their most heartbreaking one -- by falling to the Friars in double overtime.

St. John's dropped to 9-8 overall, 0-5 in the conference. Providence improved to 12-5 overall, 2-2 in the conference.

The turning point: Steve Lavin went with his ninth different starting lineup in 17 games this season. God'sgift Achiuwa opened the scoring with a pair of free throws, but Providence rattled off 14 straight points from there, leading to a St. John's timeout. A late 6-0 spurt by the Red Storm cut the Friars' lead to seven, 36-29, at halftime. St. John's had just one assist in the first half.

St. John's took its first lead since 2-0 at 65-63 on a D'Angelo Harrison trey with 3:07 remaining in regulation. In the final seconds, with the game tied at 67, Orlando Sanchez had an open look from the top of the key. It missed, as did Bryce Cotton's subsequent last-second heave. Overtime.

The Red Storm scored two quick buckets in the first OT, giving them their largest lead of the game, 71-67, but the Friars tied it back up quickly. With the game knotted at 77, after a Cotton miss from deep, St. John's could hold for the final shot. Harrison drove, lost the ball, recovered it, then missed a very tough look from the corner. Double overtime.

A layup by Phil Greene IV gave St. John's an 81-79 lead with 2:21 remaining in double OT. Then, in a mad scramble for the ball near midcourt, the Red Storm emerged with the ball, and Harrison raced in for another layup, making it 83-79 with 1:35 left. After Providence's Tyler Harris made two free throws to make it 83-82 with 25.6 seconds left, St. John's inbounded the ball to Max Hooper, who was tied up for a jump ball -- possession Friars. On the ensuing possession, Cotton drove and drained a runner, plus a foul, with 9.8 ticks left. Cotton missed the free throw, but then Greene drove the lane and missed a layup in traffic. That's your ballgame.

Star watch: Six players were in double figures for St. John's, led by Jakarr Sampson with 16 points. Greene had 15 and Harrison 14.

Cotton scored a game-high 21 points for Providence.

Number crunch: The Friars entered the game as the No. 1 free throw shooting team in the country at 79.7 percent. They shot 30-for-36 (83.3 percent) on Thursday. The Red Storm shot the same percentage but had significantly fewer attempts, 20-for-24.

What's next: St. John's plays its final nonconference game of the season Saturday, hosting Dartmouth at 6 p.m. at Carnesecca Arena. It'll be the Red Storm's third game in six days. Providence hosts No. 20 Creighton on Saturday.

Rapid Reaction: SJU 65, Longwood, 47

November, 26, 2013
NEW YORK -- A few quick thoughts on St. John's 65-47 win over Longwood on Tuesday night at Carnesecca Arena:

What it means: St. John's (4-1) won its fourth straight but played its second poor game in a row. The Red Storm had to scrape past a Longwood team picked to finish last in the Big South and missing its leading scorer due to injury. Not good. Not good at all.

The turning point: Believe it or not, it took St. John's more than six minutes to score a point. Chris Obekpa finally broke the shutout with a dunk at the 13:50 mark. The Red Storm trailed most of the first half but scored the final four points to take a 27-23 halftime lead.

St. John's took a double-digit lead for the first time, 38-27, on a God'sgift Achiuwa dunk with 12:11 remaining. But Longwood did not wilt. The Lancers were still within seven, 44-37, with under eight minutes left. But a D'Angelo Harrison conventional three-point play made it 50-37 with 6:11 to go, and the lead never dipped back to single digits after that.

Star watch: Harrison finished with a team-high 18 points but had a poor shooting night -- 6-for-19 from the field, and 3-for-11 from 3-point range. Sir'Dominic Pointer was the only other St. John's player in double figures, with 11 points off the bench.

Jakarr Sampson scored just three points, shooting 1-for-8 from the field (although he did have 11 rebounds). Freshman Rysheed Jordan, returning from a one-game suspension, came off the bench and scored four assists and eight points in 17 minutes, shooting 2-for-7.

Number crunch: St. John's shooting numbers as a team were brutal: 22-for-59 overall (37.3 percent), 3-for-19 from long distance (15.8 percent) and 18-for-30 from the foul line (60 percent). The Red Storm did tie a school record with 15 blocks.

What's next: St. John's switches boroughs from Queens to Brooklyn when it faces Penn State on Friday in the semifinals of the Barclays Center Classic. Tipoff is at 7 p.m.

St. John's preview: Sweet 16 or bust

November, 8, 2013
St. John's begins its 2013-14 season Friday night against 20th-ranked Wisconsin, in Sioux Falls, S.D. -- by far the most challenging opener in Steve Lavin's four years as coach.

That seems fitting, since this season feels like a final exam, testing whether Lavin really can turn this once-storied program around.

"If we stay injury-free and we continue to develop at the pace that this group has, I feel we'll have the opportunity to do something special come March," Lavin said at the Red Storm's media day on Oct. 10.

[+] EnlargeSteve Lavin
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsSteve Lavin needs to get the Johnnies to the Sweet 16 or he probably never will.
A return to the NCAA tournament would be nice, but that's not special enough. This team needs to make the Sweet 16. Anything less would be a disappointment.

Lavin was hired in March 2010, with St. John's having been absent from March Madness for eight consecutive years. He and his staff did an excellent job with the roster he inherited in year one, guiding the team to a 21-12 record and a return to the Big Dance.

The train went off the rails in year two. Lavin missed most of the season after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. The roster was wafer-thin and full of freshmen. Assistant coach Mike Dunlap did an admirable job under the circumstances, but the team still finished 13-19.

Thankfully Lavin made a full recovery, and St. John's made some progress in year three. The Red Storm improved to 17-16, but again missed the NCAA tournament.

We've now reached year four. The deck is full. No more excuses.

To put things in some perspective, Kentucky, the preseason top-ranked team in the country, has nine players who made ESPN's Top 100 as high school seniors. Michigan State, ranked No. 2, has eight of them.

St. John's is close behind with six -- three juniors (D'Angelo Harrison, Sir'Dominic Pointer, Jamal Branch), two sophomores (Jakarr Sampson, Chris Obekpa) and one freshman (Rysheed Jordan). That group -- along with Orlando Sanchez, Phil Greene IV, Max Hooper and God'sgift Achiuwa -- is good enough to make some serious noise over the next five months.

Harrison is one of the best perimeter scorers in the country. Sampson, at 6-foot-8, can score inside and out. Branch is an outstanding passer, and Pointer is an even better finisher. Obekpa led the nation in blocked shots as a freshman, and Jordan is the most-hyped St. John's freshman since Felipe Lopez.

They've got talent, they've got balance, and they've got plenty of minutes under their belt, other than Jordan. "It's time to win here," Harrison told me on Oct. 10 -- and he's right.

Wisconsin will be very tough, even on a neutral floor. But after that, St. John's plays its next 11 games in the five boroughs -- either at Carnesecca Arena, Madison Square Garden or the Barclays Center. They should win every one of them, with the exception of a game against No. 8 Syracuse at MSG on Dec. 15.

Big East play commences on New Year's Eve at Xavier, and the Red Storm -- picked to finish fifth in the conference's preseason poll -- can compete with Marquette, Georgetown and Creighton for the league title.

To be frank, barring major injuries, anything less than an NCAA tournament bid would be a disaster.

St. John's hasn't won a game in the Big Dance since 2000. It hasn't won two since 1999, when Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace), Marvis "Bootsy" Thornton, Erick Barkley & Co. advanced to the Elite Eight, losing by just three points against Ohio State with a chance to make the Final Four.

That team had three players go on to the NBA -- Artest, Barkley and Lavor Postell. This team could have even more. But there's no time to waste. Sampson flirted with the idea of leaving after winning Big East Rookie of the Year last season. Harrison could make the leap with another big year. And if Jordan is as good as advertised, he could be one-and-done.

Lavin has proved he can recruit elite talent to St. John's -- an accomplishment in and of itself. But now he needs to coach 'em up.

If he doesn't win -- and win big -- this season with the Red Storm, he probably never will.

Rapid Reaction: Kentucky 81, St. John's 59

December, 1, 2011
Recap | Box score

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- A quick take on St. John's 81-59 loss to Kentucky on Thursday night at Rupp Arena.

WHAT IT MEANS: St. John's (4-4) fails in its bid to knock off the No. 1-ranked team in the nation. It was a tall order -- especially considering it was the Red Storm's first road game of the season, and six of the seven regulars were playing their first Division I game away from home. Nevertheless, they will be disappointed, particularly considering the margin of defeat.

The Red Storm, who were without head coach Steve Lavin as he continues his leave of absence to recover from prostate cancer surgery, are now 0-3 against Top 25 opponents this season.

THE SKINNY: St. John's, which has been prone to poor starts this season, hung with Kentucky in the first five minutes. Then the Wildcats ripped off a 12-0 run to go up 16-5. The Red Storm responded with a 7-0 run themselves, cutting the lead to 16-12. But Kentucky expanded their advantage again before intermission, leading by as many as 12, and 31-20 at the break.

Kentucky pushed the lead to 16 early in the second half, 38-22, and St. John's never got the deficit back into single digits. The Wildcats eventually wore down the undermanned Johnnies, leading by as many as 27.

RETURN TO SENDER: Kentucky led the nation in blocked shots coming in, averaging 10.3 per game. The Wildcats had 10 in the first half alone on Thursday night. They finished with a whopping 18 blocked shots -- a school record.

Freshman sensation Anthony Davis -- 6-foot-10, with arms that appear about twice as long -- had a sensational game for the Wildcats, with 15 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocks.

SPLIT DECISION: God'sgift Achiuwa was the bright spot for St. John's, playing well against a big-time opponent after struggling at Madison Square Garden against Arizona and Texas A&M. Achiuwa finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Moe Harkless had 16 and 10, but it was a quieter 16 and 10.

St. John's got very little from starting guards Nurideen Lindsey and D'Angelo Harrison, the team's top two scorers heading into this game. The pair -- who were averaging 28.7 points combined -- contributed just six points on the night, five by Harrison. St. John's can't beat anybody that way, let alone Kentucky.

WHAT'S NEXT: St. John's faces another road game, at Detroit at 7 p.m. Monday. It figures to be another tough contest -- the Titans were picked to finish second in the Horizon League, and many people think Detroit is better than preseason favorite Butler.

It will be a special night in the Motor City, as the Titans' home court will be named after legendary ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale, a former coach at the school.

God'sgift Achiuwa arrives at St. John's

June, 14, 2011
God'sgift Achiuwa is the first member of St. John's much-heralded recruiting class to arrive on campus in Queens.

(And yes, that's the correct spelling of his first name, not "God's Gift" -- Achiuwa made that clarification upon his arrival.)

"It's been a very nice experience transitioning from junior college to a four-year college," said Achiuwa, who is already taking classes in St. John's Summer I session. "I really enjoy it down here so I feel very appreciative to be in this kind of environment."

(Click here to read my story on Achiuwa, after interviewing him last month.)

Achiuwa, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward who was a junior college All-American at Erie Community College in upstate New York, is taking theology and accounting classes, as well as working out at the St. John's facilities.

"The campus is kind of empty," Achiuwa said. "You don't have too many people taking summer classes so it's kind of good. You can study and it's kind of quiet, but there are also good things about it because you are a little bit more focused on academics."

Several more members of the nine-man recruiting class -- ranked No. 3 in the country by ESPNU -- are expected to arrive on campus for the Summer II session, which begins in July.