When asked about the impact of the loss of his versatile senior and leading rebounder D. J. Kennedy, Red Storm head coach Steve Lavin didn’t try to sugarcoat it, saying it’s without a doubt “a devastating blow” to the team.
There is no question that Kennedy was a leader on this senior laden team, and one if its most important and skilled players who played the frontline all season with a determination that has been the calling card of this St. John’s team all season. And when you look at the Gonzaga roster and see its 9 players listed at 6-5 and above, you begin to wonder who the real favorite is in tonight’s 6 v. 11 matchup. In fact, if you ignore the intangibles and look at the major statistical breakdown, it might even be hard to look at the Red Storm as the higher seed.
The picture looks pretty bleak from that standpoint. It’s as if the Johnnies have the steepest of hills to climb against an already battle and tournament tested Zags squad. But let’s not forget that there are other factors at play besides numbers, especially when it comes to March Madness.
The Red Storm has been a team all year that has defined itself not by doing the obvious things outstandingly, such as scoring, rebounding, and shooting. Instead, they relied on grit, teamwork, and determination to win games, and they did a fine job of that on the whole as they knocked off a number of highly ranked opponents. They posted the best turnover differential in an extremely competitive Big East conference that sent a record 11 teams to the Dance this year. They’ve also proven that they don’t need star power to win games, although they’ve gotten some big performances from Dwight Hardy when they needed them most. The senior guard put up nearly 25 points per game in wins against Georgetown, Duke, UConn, and Pittsburgh.
But perhaps the biggest advantage that St. John’s still has in its pocket against perennial NCAA Tournament Cinderella Gonzaga is its head coach, Steve Lavin. His resume includes a 12-4 record in games that make it to overtime, which proves that he can keep his team on track when the nerves start to get tested – something that the loss of Kennedy is sure to bring to the table. He also led his UCLA Bruins squad to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 1997-2003, including reaching the Sweet 16 five of those seasons. That last part is something only he and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski have accomplished. He also ranks second to only Dean Smith in winning percentage in the opening two rounds of the tournament, at 90.9 (10-1) all-time.
In summary, while it may seem on the surface that St. John’s is somehow the underdog in this matchup despite having the higher seed, it still has some keys that lie in its favor which give the team a fantastic shot at advancing past the opening round for the first time since 2000. Don’t count them out just yet.
About the Author
Written by Nick Blanchard
I am a huge sports fan, as well as a lifetime athlete in a multitude of different athletic ventures. I used to do a little bit of everything but now the only one I participate in regularly is post-college lacrosse. I'm an English major, finishing up my undergraduate education in Upstate NY, and after that I'm hoping to get into sports writing as a career.