Saint John’s demolished Xavier Monday night at Madison Square Garden, completing a season sweep of the Musketeers and assuring SJU of a bid to the NCAA tournament. Although the box score says that we only won by one point, 58-57, that’s deceiving, because the outcome was never in doubt. There was no way a mid-major team like Xavier was going to come into our house with so much on the line and get out of there with a victory. Especially a team from a backwater like Ohio … The score illustrates a point that I’ve been saying all year and one that all knowledgeable sports fans know: statistics don’t tell the whole story and are in fact for all intents and purposes meaningless. What’s really important is the eye test. For example a newbie might look at our shooting line – 40 percent from the floor, 30 percent from three, and 40 percent from the free throw line – and say that we did not shoot well. But longtime fans know that we are shooting dramatically much better than we did when Norm Roberts was coaching and that our fundamentals such as ball screens and tertiary footwork have improved too. I mean sure, maybe last night the ball didn’t go in the basket as much as we’d like, but points are just more statistics and sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is that Saint John’s outplayed Xavier in every facet of the game, except maybe rebounding, where Xavier had a slight 47-27 advantage. That we were able to pull out the victory proves the point made by Lavs earlier in the season when he said that rebounding doesn’t matter … As for Lavs, he outcoached Chris Mack and once again demonstrated that we are lucky to have him as part of our Saint John’s family. His rotations, use of timeouts, Xs and Os and halftime adjustments were once again exemplary. With the victory we’re now ahead of five teams in the standing and behind only four – and three of those four we’re behind are ranked. Even a coach as skilled as Lavs cannot be expected to be ahead of teams that are ranked higher than his team is. I mean, he’s not a magician. With three games remaining we’re only 5 games behind front running Villanova (BOO!) – anything can happen. Who could have imagined that after only five years at the helm Lavs has us once again in the Big Dance. That he’s done all that while beating cancer and overcoming the devastating loss of a parent – which is the sort of tragedy few people in history have ever had to go through – is nothing short of astounding. … One thing Lavs doesn’t get enough credit for is how he handles the press. Last night he demonstrated his media savvy in the postgame interview when he deflected criticism about his team’s poor start (and you have to think that it’s no coincidence that that criticism came from a UConn graduate – jealous much Donny Marshall?) – by comparing the beginning of the game to a make out session where a nervous virgin starts to kiss a girl but instead of suavely thrusting his tongue into her hungry willing wet mouth he instead bangs his teeth against her teeth but then recovers and is able to pleasure her with his tumescent throbbing manhood, which is just the sort of graphic sexual analogy employed by other beloved NY sports figures such as Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra and even our own HOF coach Lou Carnesecca, who used to talk about his “feather duster,” which you don’t have to be Elmore James to figure that out. A coach with less ability might have discussed the intricacies of the game but Lavs is more than a mere coach: he is a philosopher and a visionary. It makes me proud to have the same first name as Coach Lavin and the even the same initials. Hopefully the university comes to its senses and extends him before some other program scoops him up …. I know that some Gloomy Gus SJU fans like to complain about the referees, and believe me I completely respect their opinions. I mean sure, usually when we lose games it’s because of the referees, but that’s sports, right? Tonight though I thought the refs did a great job of letting the kids play for the first 16 minutes, during which 16 minutes they did not call a single foul, and then after that did a great job of reining the players in by calling 30 fouls over the next 24 minutes. Typically Saint John’s got the short end of the stick, 17 FTs to 15. I’m just glad that this time differential did not come back to bite us in the ass … We now have a week off to get healthy for the home stretch and after that the BE tournament and hopefully another Cinderella run in the Big Dance. We are Saint John’s!
PLAYERS: In a timely article in Monday’s NY Post, Phil Greene was finally given the recognition he deserves as one of the best players in the Big East. In the article (written by Zach Braziller, who is a top notch journalist IMHO) Greene described himself as a “hero,” which IMHO is an understatement, because hero means “a man distinguished by courage and admired for his bravery and nobility” and Phil is so much more than that. IMHO it’s about time Phil was recognized alongside other NY champions such as Jackie Robinson, Bobby Thompson and Willis Reed. Greene also talked about how frustrating it was for him that his heroism does not receive the accolades it deserves, but noted that real fans of basketball appreciate everything he does, especially the little things. Most people have never accomplished anything near what Phil has in his illustrious career, so we can only imagine how tough it must be not having the sort of quiet heroism he displays night after night rewarded by cheers and adulation. It must be heartbreaking. Greene’s fortitude was on full display last night, when he bravely continued to shoot the ball despite his inability to get it to go into the basket. Greene courageously shot 2 for 7 and ended up with 5 heroic points, for which I am awarding him a long overdue game ball … I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of a back-up PG who’s had a better career than Jamal Branch and the closest I can come is Mark Jackson when he backed up Mike Moses, but even that comparison doesn’t do Branch justice, because Jackson was a freshman, whereas Branch is a talented senior who would likely be all league if he played on another team in another league. He comes ready to play every night and you would be hard pressed to name another guard who throws a no look pass with the sort of accuracy as does Branch. Although he finished with no points or rebounds last night he contributed in many other ways, including through intangibles … Chris Obekpa once again played a good game and seems to have fully recovered from the injury he suffered when his elbow was head butted in the Butler game several weeks ago. It is IMHO a joy to watch Obekpa play: his infectious grin is representative of everything that should be celebrated about amateur athletics … A lot of sourpusses were down on Lavs last recruiting class but when all is said and done I think it will go down as one of the best in school history. The most impressive of the bunch has been Amar Alibegovic. He’s an imposing physical specimen, a good rebounder, and one of the best screen-setters I’ve ever seen in 35 years of watching SJU basketball. He‘s also a dead eye shooter, even if his percentages – .38 from the floor, .27 from three and .14 from the free throw line – don’t reflect it. Another example of stats being deceiving. Although Alibegovic did not score last night, look out, that’s just the beginning for him. Once he gets used to living in a foreign country and adjusts to playing in the best college basketball conference in the country look for those numbers to sky rocket … After a big win against Concordia in 2012 Lavs noted that Christian Jones was a “special” player; coach went on to praise Jones “poise and ability to see the game” and noted that Jones “can post up as well as any freshman I’ve ever had.” Considering the caliber of player that Lavs has coached in his illustrious career that is high praise, and well deserved IMHO. It is only a shame that this year’s team is so deep and talented that Jones cannot earn floor time to showcase his prodigious skills for NBA scouts. He is however by all accounts a great teammate and is often the first player off the bench to clap his hands and cheer his teammates on. Although he did not get a chance to play last night he has shown great strides over his career and I look forward to watching him play for years to come … … On any other team seven footer Joey De La Rosa would be getting major minutes, but because Saint John’s is so deep in the front line he’s been forced to come off the bench. When he does though, he changes the game because of his physicality, basketball IQ, and ability to set solid picks. It’s a shame he doesn’t have another year of eligibility because next year a front line of him, his brother Adonis, Alibegovic and Obekpa would make us an immediate contender for the national championship and maybe even the favorite. Although he did not play last night he has a bright future and I would not be surprised to see some NBA team take a flier on him in the second round of the draft. Because you can’t teach size … One player who’s made a substantial contribution to the success of this year’s team is Felix Balamou. Last year, when a less dedicated player might have red shirted after suffering a serious head injury, Felix instead applied himself in practice and by virtue of his unparalleled work ethic played his way into the starting line-up before suffering a relapse and not playing anymore. The same thing happened this year, although not the head injury, just the hard work and starting and not starting. He is such a great leaper that sometimes he jumps center and sometimes even wins the tap! You’d be hard pressed to find a SJU player who could match his leaping ability. David Russell or Michael Porter, maybe. When coach described him as one of the greatest leapers he has ever coached, well, let’s just say that was not an exaggeration. Balamou did not play last night, hopefully his concussion is not acting up, as we will need him down the stretch … Speaking of practice, no recap would be complete without mentioning the unsung work the walk ons and practice players do. Although they do not receive the sort of praise that the regular players do they are in many ways more important than the players who play. Because of our storied history we’re able to recruit walk ons such as David Lipscomb and Myles Stewart, who would probably be starters and scholarship players had they gone anywhere else. But they knew, as do we, that it’s better to sit on the bench in New York City than it is to see floor time in backwaters such as Kentucky or Kansas. Because if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.
NOTES: The game was broadcast on Fox, which did an excellent job IMHO. Not only was the picture crystal clear and the audio letter perfect, but the director did an exemplary job of showing the action – it can be quite difficult to manage several cameras at one and to cut from one to the other at just the right time, but I thought he did so. The game was called by Joe Davis and Donnie Marshall both of whom were good. As the play by play guy Davis did a good job of describing to the people who were watching what they were watching. Marshall was the color man and did a good job providing analysis and background information. His experience as an excellent college player was a real plus here, as he was able to supply nuanced and subtle info that the lay viewer might have otherwise missed. Such as for example when he said “that block doesn’t even matter, it really doesn’t, obviously it does,” that really added to my understanding of the game … It’s winter here in upstate New York. Winter is great IMHO, although I would not be able to pick a favorite season: spring has flowers and the Kentucky Derby; summer has hot dogs and the beach; fall has pretty leaves and the World Series and Lions football. They’re all so wonderful, it’d be too hard to pick just one. In winter – besides snow and ice, which are so picturesque – there are all sorts of fun things to do, such as skiing and snowboarding and especially figure skating, a sport for which I have a particular passion. Today being sunny and a balmy 6 degrees Fahrenheit I decided to bundle up and go for a long walk. Imagine my surprise when while snowshoeing across the back forty I saw the cutest little bunny frolicking across the snow with his family. They were so precious and I so moved that I hurried back to the house and wrote for you all a poem while I drank my warm cocoa and warmed my mukluks by the fire. I hope you don’t mind that I share it with you here.