NEW YORK -- Earlier this a month, a Twitter follower asked me which team outside the Top 25 had the most potential for the 2013-14 season. After quickly perusing the CBSSports.com Top 25 (and one), the answer became pretty clear to me: St. John's.
When looking at the Red Storm's roster for the upcoming campaign, it's not hard to see why there is so much optimism in Queens. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that this is the most talented team Steve Lavin has had since arriving at St. John's -- as well as the most talented team in the Big East.
“We've been working diligently around the clock, to get to this point as a basketball program, where we feel we're closer to having the firepower and personnel to go toe-to-toe, head-to-head with the other schools in this league, the other programs in this country,” Lavin told CBSSports.com. “We're closer.”
The talent is certainly there.
All five starters are back from last season, including Big East rookie of the year JaKarr Sampson and preseason first-team all-Big East selection D'Angelo Harrison. Lavin also has the nation's best shot-blocker in Chris Obekpa anchoring the back line of his defense, as well as Phil Greene IV and Sir'Dominic Pointer returning from the lineup.
Former Texas A&M transfer Jamal Branch could take on a bigger role this season, while fifth-year senior God's Gift Achiuwa was a starter in 2011-12 before taking a redshirt a year ago. Transfers Orlando Sanchez and Max Hooper are also expected to see minutes.
But one of the biggest reasons for higher expectations is the addition of freshman guard Rysheed Jordan. He didn't make the cut for my top 30 impact freshmen – and I'm already regretting that decision.
There's a major buzz in the program surrounding Jordan, and he was named the Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year.
“He has tremendous poise and makes good judgments on the court,” Lavin told reporters. “He plays with a hard edge, which is an indication of his competitiveness and that's why he has had success since a young age on the court.”
If all the pieces fit together for St. John's, Lavin could have a team that competes for a Big East championship and a fairly high seed in the NCAA tournament. But aside from Jordan, the team is similar to last year's group – which lost five in a row toward the end of the season and stumbled its way to a 17-16 season.
The Red Storm struggled offensively for the most part a year ago, relying heavily on isolations and pick-and-rolls in the halfcourt, as well as transition offense. They were one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country, making just 27.1 percent of their jumpers behind the arc. St. John's also failed to get to the free-throw line on a consistent basis. Rebounding was also a major issue.
“There are three keys,” Lavin said. “Staying injury free, because obviously injuries derail seasons, learning to play as a cohesive unit on both ends of the court, which will develop chemistry, and the development of our freshman will be vital to our team's success. If I look big picture, I like the personnel, the pieces, and the balance of this team.”
On paper, St. John's has the roster to compete with anyone in the country. There are few teams – especially outside the top 10 – that have the talent Lavin has at his disposal. It's going to come down to consistency and chemistry.
Lavin isn't hiding the ceiling of this team, though.
“I do feel there's a palpable sense of electricity or a certain degree of anticipation for a good season,” Lavin said. “I like that. Expectations are a good thing. We embrace them. It means you're relevant again, people expect things of you. People expect us to win.”
When I mentioned that I chose them as the team outside the top 25 with the most potential, Lavin just smiled.
He knows this could be a big year at St. John's.