QUEENS, N.Y. - Winners of six of the last seven games, head coach Steve Lavinand his young St. John's basketball team (8-3) look to equal their 9-3 start from the 2010-11 season and close out 2012 with a bang as UNC Asheville (4-7) of the Big South Conference visits Carnesecca Arena for a pre-Christmas tilt on Friday, Dec. 21. The 7:30 p.m. matchup will be carried live nationally on ESPN3 as a production of the newly-created St. John's Television Network (STJ-TV). Play-by-play announcer Tony Luftman and New York-based national on-air personality Brandon Tierney will bring fans all of the action from courtside, joining the raucous crowd of festively-sweatered Red Storm fans expected to be on hand in Queens. The matchup can be heard live on the official radio flagship of St. John's Basketball, Bloomberg Radio 1130-AM, and on RedStormSports.com (subscription), with veteran play-by-play announcer John Minko and Tim O'Toole.
A new favorite STJ Athletics tradition returns on Friday as Ugly Holiday Sweater Night comes back to Queens. Fans wearing an ugly holiday sweater will pay just $10 admission. In addition, St. John's Athletics' annual holiday toy drive will take place in the lobby of Carnesecca Arena. Fans who donate a new, unwrapped toy will receive a voucher for a $10 ticket. Vouchers can then be redeemed at the Carnesecca Arena Ticket Office.
Lavin returns in 2012-13 after posting a 2-2 record last season while making a full recovery from prostate cancer surgery (Oct. 6, 2011). Dr. Peter Scardino of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center placed Lavin on a modified schedule in 2011-12 that kept him off the sideline, enabling Lavin to better focus on a full recuperation, while simultaneously securing the No. 8 recruiting class in the nation per HoopScoop.com. St. John's 2012 recruiting class is comprised of eight standout student-athletes representing five countries. The highly-acclaimed group followed a 2011 class ranked No. 3 nationally by ESPN. Lavin is 31-17 at St. John's.
Last time out, CNN/SI Freshman of the Week Chris Obekpa blocked nine shots, two shy of the school record he set the game prior against Fordham (Dec. 8), as the Red Storm beat St. Francis (N.Y.), 77-60, on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. BIG EAST Rookie of the Week JaKarr Sampson scored 21 points with 12 rebounds to post his second-straight double-double, and third of his career, and added two assists and two steals. League Honor Roll member D'Angelo Harrisonscored a game-high 25 points on Saturday to register his eighth 20-point performance in 11 games. He finished 4-of-8 from 3-point range, and also added six rebounds, five assists and three steals.
Friday marks the second meeting between the Bulldogs and the Red Storm, with St. John's winning the only previous matchup, 105-50 on November 16, 1998, at Carnesecca Arena.
Preseason All-BIG EAST Second Team selection D'Angelo Harrisonis the league's second-leading scorer at 20.6 points per game (14th nationally), and his 82.0 percent success rate at the free throw line ranks seventh among all BIG EAST players. The four-time BIG EAST Honor Roll member's 2.3 made 3-pointers per game rank sixth in the conference, he holds the team lead and is listed ninth in the league (69th nationally) with 2.2 steals per game and his 34.3 minutes per game rank ninth in the BIG EAST. He is currently firing at a rate of 43.4 percent from the field and owns a 34.7 mark from beyond the arc. He has reached the 20-point plateau in eight of St. John's first 11 games.
Second-year guard Phil Greene IVis making an early run as the BIG EAST's Most Improved Player. After averaging 7.6 ppg as a freshman, he is currently firing at an 10.5 ppg clip and showing his ability as a dynamic scorer and playmaker. His 3.4 assists per game rank tied for 16th among all BIG EAST players and his 2.12 assist-to-turnover ratio is ranked 12th.
Sophomore swingman Amir Garrettclosed out 2011-12 with 14-straight starts as part of the "Fresh Five." Garrett spent the offseason in professional baseball as a left-handed pitcher within the Cincinnati Reds minor league system. This season he is averaging 6.5 ppg and 6.0 rebounds with an impressive .482 field goal percentage that ranks tied for 16th in the BIG EAST.
Motor City sophomore Sir'Dominic Pointeraveraged 6.6 ppg in 2011-12 and his 4.6 rebounds per game average ranked fourth on the team. The Red Storm's best on-ball defender is 16th in the BIG EAST with a 1.4 steals per game average, and recently scored 12 points with seven boards, five assists and two steals against Fordham (Dec. 15).
Three-time BIG EAST Rookie of the Week JaKarr Sampsonowns a team-leading 7.4 rpg (eighth in the BIG EAST) to go along with 14.5 ppg (17th) and a pair of preseason dunks that were selected as SportsCenter Top 10 plays. His rejections (1.6, 13th) offensive boards (2.4 per game, 11th) and defensive rebounds (5.0 per game, 12th) are listed among the league leaders.
A game-changing shotblocker who craves defense, 6-9 Chris Obekpaaveraged 13.0 rebounds and 9.0 blocks per game as a high school senior on Long Island. The Nigerian native with the 7-5 wingspan led STJ with a school-record 11 blocked shots in the victory vs. Fordham (Dec. 8), and is averaging a BIG EAST-leading 5.3 rejections per contest, good for second in the nation.
The final member of Lavin's eight-man recruiting class, freshman Christian Joneswas the surprise of the preseason. He played one postgraduate year for IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., averaging 12.0 points and 5.0 rebounds. In exhibition play he averaged 12.5 ppg on 66.7 percent shooting with 8.5 rebounds.
Friday marks the first game of the year for Texas A&M transfer point guard Jamal Branch, who averaged 4.2 points, 2.5 assists, 2.2 rebounds and 18.6 minutes across 11 games for the Aggies in 2011-12. He fired at a 41.7 percent clip from the field and a 33.3 percent rate from beyond the arc while dealing 28 assists with 21 total turnovers (1.3 ratio).
Athletic wing Felix Balamoucontinues to be a key playmaker. In the last nine games he has averaged 4.3 ppg, connecting on 16-of-31 field goals (.516) while contributing 1.9 rpg in 13.2 minutes.
JUCO transfer Orlando Sanchez will not participate Friday as he awaits an eligibility ruling from the NCAA. Harvard transfer Max Hooperis eligible for game participation in the 2013-14 season.
Senior big man God'sgift Achiuwa, who averaged 9.5 ppg and 5.6 rpg in his JUCO transfer year in 2011-12, is in consideration for a redshirt season. Achiuwa, a member of St. John's University's prestigious President's Society, is on track to graduate with a degree in administrative studies and could complete Master's degree requirements by the end of 2013-14.
BIG EAST play begins with St. John's most-frequently faced rival throughout history. The Red Storm heads to Villanova to face the Wildcats in a historic 105th meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 2. The 8 p.m. contest at the Pavilion will air nationally on ESPNU.
Scouting UNC Asheville
UNC Asheville comes into Friday's matchup at 4-7 and winners of three of its last four, including a 79-73 triumph over Northeastern on Wednesday. After posting an early 3-1 record at home, the victory over the Huskies marked the first road win of the year for the Bulldogs. UNCA has an RPI of 239, the third-highest in the Big South Conference after playing four teams inside the RPI top-100.
The Bulldogs are an efficient offensive team, shooting .454 from the field, second-best in the Big South. Friday's matchup will be a test of two tough interior defenses as like St. John's, UNC Asheville leads its conference in blocked shots at 5.3 rejections per contest.
Senior forward Jeremy Atkinson leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 17.7 points per game, while also collecting a team-high 7.5 rebounds per contest. Atkinson is one of four players to start all 11 games for UNCA, along with sophomore guard Keith Hornsby, junior guard Trent Meyer and senior forward Jon Nwannunu. Hornsby averaged 23.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists in two games last week en route to being named the Big South Conference Player of the Week
The head coach of the Bulldogs is Eddie Biedenbach, who is in his 17th year at the helm in Asheville. Beidenbach, who has been named Big South Coach of the Year three times is the longest tenured coach in the league's history and has a career mark of 244-249 in his time at UNC Asheville.