NEW YORK — Steve Lavin has coached in four Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight at UCLA, so he knows when a team has the potential to go deep into March.
He has long touted this year’s St. John’s team as having that potential.
This is clearly the best team of Lavin’s four-year tenure in Queens, a team loaded with future pros in Rysheed Jordan, JaKarr Sampson and Chris Obekpa.
Yet there they were, teetering on the edge of an unsightly early-season loss and down nine points in the second half to Bucknell at home on Tuesday night.
A loss to the Bison would’ve dropped the Johnnies to 1-2 and raised some major questions about their resume for March.
But fueled by Phil Greene IV’s 16 points and 13 blocks by their defense, the Johnnies took control in the second half en route to a 67-63 victory at Carnesecca Arena.
Instead of an unsightly 1-2 record to start the season, the Johnnies held steady at 2-1.
“You can see some glimpses of coming attractions and what can be come February,” Lavin said.
“I do think by February we could be a team that finds its stride, could be a team that’s a dangerous opponent.”
They are certainly not dangerous from beyond the arc.
The Johnnies came in 2-for-23 from deep and finished 4-for-15. Greene IV made two of those 3’s back-to-back during a 21-6 game-changing second-half run that turned a 45-38 deficit into 59-51 lead.
“Their ability to hit the 3 was something we focused on,” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said by way of understatement. “I would guess that moving forwards that’s something they want to focus on.”
Still, the difference down the stretch of this game was St. John’s defense, which could — and should — be a major focus for them going forward.
They finished with 13 blocks, including seven by the 6-foot-9 Obekpa, who led the nation with 4.03 rejections last season.
“We [missed] 30 shots and they had 13 blocked shots, so for all intents and purposes half of our shots were blocks,” Paulsen said.
Lavin went to a 2-3 zone down the stretch that clogged the lanes and prevented Cameron Ayers (career-high 25 points) and company from penetrating to the rim.
“Our defense kept us in the game and we know our defense will help us win a lot more games,” said Sir’Dominic Pointer.
The Johnnies face Monmouth on Friday in a game they should win, but things don’t get easier after that.
Before the New Year, St. John’s still must play a Penn State team (3-1) that beat La Salle Tuesday night; Georgia Tech (3-0) or Ole Miss (2-0) ; No. 9 Syracuse (4-0); and a Columbia team that gave No. Michigan State all it could handle recently.
And the first three tilts in the Big East for Lavin’s club?
At Xavier, at Georgetown and against Villanova at the Garden.
It’s not hard to envision Lavin’s club having four or five losses by the first week of 2014.
And that’s before the bulk of the Big East campaign kicks in.
This team is young and raw and has a lot of work to do.
But they also have scorers in Jordan, Sampson (11 points) and D’Angelo Harrison (12 points) , and they have arguably the nation’s best shot-blocker in Obekpa.
In short, they have the pieces to make a run into March, and this win was as good a step in that direction as any.
“Each day and each game we’re going to get a lot better so by January and February and come March,” Greene IV said, “we’ll be a dangerous team to play.”