Friday, March 11, 2011

Red Storm Will Dance Without D.J.

The St. John's basketball team lost more than the game to Syracuse yesterday, they lost D.J. Kennedy, an intricate part of the rags-to-riches Red Storm team. The numbers 1.7 on the time clock may be forever forged in the minds of the St. John's players, after their controversial win over Rutgers the day before, but 14:25 is a number they would like to erase from their minds--it is the moment their star player went down.

Kennedy crumpled to the floor under the basket, only 5:35 into the game, clutching his right knee after going up for a rebound in St. John's quarterfinal match-up against Syracuse.  An MRI later showed a torn ACL.  His collegiate basketball career was now over. and the Red Storm's NCAA tournament chances diminished.

Not so fast say the other players.  While the loss of Kennedy will probably drop the Red Storm from a probable #4 seed in the NCAA's to a #5 or 6, the eight remaining seniors say the same resiliency which carried this team throughout the season will continue into the Big Dance.

This is an experienced squad which turned it around this year.  They worked hard towards playing in their first NCAA tournament and erasing the tag 'Never Made it to the Big Dance' from their bios. The  remaining seniors endured a brutal 2011 schedule and a four year wait which must have seemed like an eternity. Now it's show time.

St. John's head coach Steve Lavin--who inherited this once-wayward team-- realizes the loss of Kennedy--who he calls "The Glue"-- is a big blow to the Johnnies' chances in the NCAA's, but is counting on the team to not let up.

"They've accomplished some very special things, and then we're not satisfied," said Lavin.  "So I don't underestimate this group's ability to continue to find ways to win.  I think we'll have to recalibrate, 'cause the loss of D.J. Kennedy is devastating...but the will and spirit of this group is strong that I have confidence we'll make a run of it."

If yesterday's 79-73 loss is any indication, Lavin should be confident.  No. 18 St. John's (21-11) went toe-to-toe with No. 11 Syracuse (26-6) until the waning moments. The whole team picked up the slack after Kennedy went down.

Kennedy, who was the team's third leading scorer and best rebounder, leaves big shoes to fill and senior Sean Evans was more than a capable replacement.  Evans scored 11 points and grabbed 12 rebounds against a bigger Syracuse team.  Dwight Hardy, Paris Horne and Justin Brownlee all chipped in with double-digit points but they know the road will be bumpier without Kennedy.

"I feel like we can win it all, that's how I feel being the competitor I am," said Justin Burrell. "It'll be a lot tougher, but I think we can do it."

The Johnnies have been on a magical ride this season.  The senior-laden team plays an aggressive physical brand of basketball.  They are a machine filled with interchangeable parts who know how to share the ball and the glory.  Now, one of those parts will be hobbling on the sidelines, cheering them on.  These guys know they have come too far over four years to let up now.

And for St. John's fans, nine years seems like forever since they had a vested interest in Selection Sunday or actually penciled the name 'St. John's' in on their bracket sheets.

Put it this way, the last time a St. John's team danced, Justin Timberlake was in a boy band and they listened to him on a Walkman.

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