Well, apparently it depends on who is causing the preseason hurdle.
From the outside, one would assume that losing redshirt senior Anthony Mason Jr. to a hamstring injury that may keep him sidelined for the remainder of the calendar year would be a hit this squad can't afford.
Well, think again. Apparently Mason is somewhat expendable.
Mason was an All-Big East honorable mention pick as a junior in 2007-08, when he led St. John's with 14 points a game. He is currently sixth on St. John's career 3-pointers list with 109.
But the Red Storm were hardly playing "Chicken Little" during the Big East media day Wednesday.
"We have more depth, more guys who are versatile and tough and who can score on this year's team," junior guard Malik Boothe said. "That's why this year's team can make a push to get to the Big Dance this year."
Sixth-year St. John's coach Norm Roberts, who is still seeking his first NCAA tournament appearance, joked that "New York would find a way to blame me for this."
Roberts said Mason got hurt in a transition drill before the team's trip to Canada over Labor Day weekend. Mason, who missed all but three games last season after surgery to repair his torn peroneal tendon in his right foot, didn't play on the trip. Then, just 30 minutes into Friday's first day of practice, Roberts said Mason was in a transition drill when he said "Aaah" and fell to the court.
"He reaggravated [the hamstring]," Roberts said. "They're going to do this new thing where they take blood from your own body and shoot it into the area that helps the healing process."
Roberts said Mason likely will be out for six weeks (if not longer) and doesn't expect him to play against Duke in Durham, N.C., on Dec. 5 or against Georgia in the SEC-Big East Invitational at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 9. He said he was hopeful that Mason could play in the Holiday Festival at MSG on Dec. 20.
"It's a hurdle, but it would have been more of a hurdle playing with him since we played without him," Roberts said. "He was out all last year."
Roberts said junior forwards D.J. Kennedy and Paris Horne already knew how to play without Mason from last season and in Canada. He said getting junior college transfer Justin Brownlee was critical because of the possibility Mason wouldn't return to top form.
"I don't think it's a big deal," Kennedy said. "He tweaked his hamstring. It's a setback for him since he was still recovering from his ankle. But it's not as big a deal as people are making it seem."
Horne said he understands the perception that "it's always something" with St. John's.
"But we'll be fine this year," Horne said. "We did a good job playing without him."
Roberts refused to say losing Mason to start the season was a crushing blow. He termed it disappointing and frustrating for Mason as he attempts to get back on the court after missing last season and earning a waiver to play.
But it's clear the Red Storm can't afford a slip-up on the court in nonconference play. The schedule has potholes such as playing at St. Bonaventure (Nov. 17), Siena at the Palestra (Nov. 27) and, of course, the game against Duke. If the Storm are to realize their goal of making the Dance, finishing in the top nine won't be enough if they don't earn a marquee nonconference win. Beating projected last-place finisher Georgia out of the SEC East might not be enough. (Read: Beating Top 25-bound Siena on a neutral court would help.)
Roberts spun the situation like this: The schedule will prepare the Red Storm for a tough slate in the Big East. He's right, but they can't rely exclusively on earning a bid in conference. Not having Mason is apparently not going to diminish the Red Storm's production. We'll see whether that is truly how it plays out in November and early December. If Brownlee produces as projected, the staff and players may be right.
• With five more first-place votes in the preseason coaches' poll, Villanova was tabbed to win the Big East over West Virginia. Connecticut got one first-place vote. After discussions with a number of coaches in the league, I would be more inclined to flip the top two, with West Virginia the favorite over Nova. The Wildcats might be deeper, but no team in the Big East has as talented a foursome returning as the Mountaineers do with Devin Ebanks, Da'Sean Butler, Joe Mazzulla and Darryl Bryant. That foursome can lead WVU to the Final Four.
Louisville checked in at No. 4, followed by Georgetown, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Pitt, Seton Hall, St. John's, Marquette, Providence, South Florida, Rutgers and DePaul. I would have pushed Louisville down a few pegs, moved up Georgetown to equal status with Connecticut and placed Syracuse and Notre Dame together. Cincinnati still needs to prove it belongs a bit higher, but I would have the Bearcats and Cardinals even behind the Orange and Irish. Projecting Pitt at No. 9 is fair, although I have a hard time seeing a Jamie Dixon-coached team finishing in the 9-spot. The Pirates have the talent to finish higher. It's hard to argue with 11-16.
• Notre Dame's Luke Harangody was picked as the preseason player of the year as he goes for his second POY honor in three seasons. (UConn's Hasheem Thabeet and Pitt's DeJuan Blair shared the award last season.) Cincinnati freshman Lance Stephenson was picked as the Big East preseason rookie of the year. Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said Wednesday he's hoping he'll know within two weeks whether Stephenson has been cleared to compete, as the NCAA Eligibility Center continues to delve into his amateur status. Stephenson was just cleared to practice academically.
Joining Harangody on the All-Big East preseason team were Cincinnati's Deonta Vaughn, Georgetown's Greg Monroe, Marquette's Lazar Hayward, Villanova's Scottie Reynolds and West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler.
Connecticut's starting backcourt tandem of Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker headlined the second team with Louisville's Samardo Samuels, Seton Hall's Jeremy Hazell, South Florida's Dominique Jones and West Virginia's Devin Ebanks.