Anyone driving down Union Turnpike on the evening of Friday, November 14, had to notice the flashes emanating from the covered windows of Carnesecca Arena.
There was a big event going on inside, which was good news. For St. John’s men’s basketball, which posted an 11-19 record last year and has not seen the NCAA tournament since 2002, flashbulbs were not always the norm last season.
But a few facelifts can do good things for a team. For one, Friday was the grand, $5 million re-opening of Carnesecca Arena. Aside from the addition of 800 chair-back seats and new diagonal seating in the corners, the interior of the facility did not look fundamentally different. Carnesecca still lacks a center-hung scoreboard atop the hardwood, which the “Carnesecca Initiative” expects to address in the near future. However, the new lobby, designed to honor the history of one of college basketball’s most storied franchises, is bright and impressive.
More important, though, are the subtler facelifts in personnel that leave many feeling optimistic about the prospects of a team projected to finish 14th in the 16-team Big East, according to the preseason coaches’ poll. Christ The King product Malik Boothe, an energetic sophomore point guard who spent his off-season working on his jump shot, has replaced graduated floor general Eugene Lawrence, who leaves a large shadow. Sophomore forward Sean Evans, who improved as his freshman season wore on, is finally in the lineup despite getting only six starts last year. Anthony Mason Jr., the senior forward and fan favorite, is back after an injury-plagued 2007-08 campaign.
One-year stalwarts D.J. Kennedy, the team’s second-leading rebounder, and Justin Burrell, a Big East All-Rookie honoree, round out a starting five almost entirely dominated by sophomores.
Everyone loves a young team, and the vibes at the season opener against Long Island University, which the Red Storm won 73-63, were accordingly positive. The relatively youthful crowd quickly reminded themselves what college basketball is supposed to sound like, with long-lasting chants of “Let’s go Johnnies” beginning right after the national anthem, heckles and Sarah Palin jokes directed at LIU foul shooters, and a showering of “Boo” every time Boothe did something of significance.
The Red Storm responded. They quickly built up a 15-3 lead and never surrendered it. Long Island sophomore guard Kyle Johnson did tally 23 points, but in a game with a lot of loose balls and dives into the press table, the rest of the Blackbirds were kept quiet. Mason Jr., who did little on offense but was happy to swat and bump opponents’ chests on defense, set a new career high with three blocks.
“We got the early leads because of our defense. We made steals, got outlet stops and rebounds,” St. John’s head coach Norm Roberts said. “Where we got into trouble was with our fouls (22 in the game). That’s where we have to get much better. We have to stop making silly fouls, grabbing fouls, holding fouls. We have to get better at moving our feet and not fouling people 30 feet from the basket, because then it breaks up the rhythm of the game.”
Kennedy, who scored eight points in the first 5:12 of play, ended up tallying 23, a career high. He looked great all night, speeding his way right past Blackbird defenders and drawing an “ooh” from the crowd with a spin move and field goal from under the basket four minutes into the second half.
“I thought D.J. made big shots and big plays for us,” Roberts said. “D.J. is absolutely one of the hardest-working players I have ever been around. He works tirelessly. He stays after practice for at least 50 minutes and takes at least 400 shots every day. … He deserves it. The way he played tonight is because he has prepared himself to do it. I’m happy for him.”
Evans, in a performance Roberts credited for its “great energy,” earned his first career double double, finishing with 13 points and 11 rebounds. He grabbed his right knee after a fall, and then seemed to aggravate it again with five minutes left, but he reported at the post-game press conference that he simply cramped up and would likely address his condition with the help of fluids and stretching.
Burrell, meanwhile, exceeded his average from last year with 14 points of his own.
Long Island University, of course, is no Connecticut, Louisville, or Pittsburgh - Big East rivals with which St. John’s will cross paths in the toughest conference in college basketball. But the win - and the near-sellout of 4914 fans in attendance, for that matter - gives St. John’s a taste of confidence heading into next week’s play.
Because despite the easy fouls, despite the streakiness that kept the Red Storm from pulling away in the second half, Carnesecca Arena felt really, really good on Friday night. Amid the flashes of cameras, there were flashes of brilliance from the sophomores of St. John’s.