December 30, 2014

Though St. John's has many impressive parts, its best start in nearly 30 years has come on the strength of playing as a team.

The 15th-ranked Red Storm kick off the second season of conference play in the reconfigured Big East on Wednesday at Seton Hall, which is still adjusting to playing as a team without its best part.

Steve Lavin's team enters the start of league play 11-1, the first time St. John's has sported such a record since the 1985-86 team went 31-5 and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed. While the Red Storm have a stud scorer in D'Angelo Harrison, who averages 19.0 points and recently moved into fourth on the school's all-time scoring list with 1,829, they also have three others contributing 11.2 points per game or better and one of the nation's best all-around players in Sir'Dominic Pointer.

After not averaging more than 6.9 points in any of his first three seasons, the 6-foot-6 Pointer has become the stat-stuffer Lavin envisioned with 11.5 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.6 steals and 1.8 blocks per game while making 56.8 percent of his shots. He had career highs of 24 points and seven steals to go with four rebounds, four assists and two blocks in Sunday's 82-57 rout of Tulane.

"He's a microcosm of our team," Lavin said of Pointer, the only player in Division I with at least 90 rebounds, 40 assists, 30 steals and 20 blocks. "When we get stops, Dom is so often the player who spearheads our defensive efforts. He unnerves opponents."

Pointer's play freed up Harrison offensively to add 21 points, bouncing back after scoring a season-low nine versus Long Beach State on Dec. 22, and Ryshee Jordan contributed 12 off the bench. Lavin was pleased his team had 13 assists on 18 first-half baskets Sunday, tweeting "that was an indication of playing a cohesive brand of basketball."

Fast starts for Seton Hall are nothing new. This is the third time in the last four seasons Kevin Willard's squad has opened 10-2 or better, but the play of freshman phenom Isaiah Whitehead - averaging 11.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists - has provided optimism the Pirates could make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006.

Whitehead, though, was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right foot last week, leaving more of the offensive burden on Sterling Gibbs (15.6 ppg) and Brandon Mobley (9.9). That depth was further challenged in Saturday's 72-43 rout of Maine since Mobley played only three minutes due to the flu, but Gibbs responded with 18 points, Jaren Sina added 13 and Khadeen Carrington chipped in 12 off the bench.

"I think it was good to play a game without him," Willard said about winning without Whitehead, who is being evaluated on a weekly basis. "We can make adjustments to the lineup and substitution patterns."

Much like Harrison, Gibbs regrouped after he was held to a season-low three in a 65-47 defeat at Georgia on Dec. 21. Gibbs is shooting a Big East-best 50.9 percent (27 for 53) from beyond the arc.

St. John's has won the last three games between the teams, including a 68-67 road win Feb. 14 in the most recent meeting as Chris Obekpa sank a go-ahead free throw with two seconds left. Gibbs was held to eight points on 2-of-13 shooting while Harrison had 12 and Pointer 10 for the Red Storm.

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