Sports

St. John’s depth keying NCAA Tournament push

The stars played like stars, and you need that at this time of the year. You need your winning players to make winning plays in must-win games, and they did that. Julian Champagnie was terrific: 21 points, five rebounds. Rasheem Dunn was excellent: 17 points, and four dimes.

Posh Alexander? He was everywhere, of course, nine assists and three steals and 15 points, sometimes looking like he could guard each member of the Xavier Musketeers by himself, all at the same time. The big guys were big, and St. John’s won a got-to-have-it game on Carnesecca Court 93-84, their 14th win in 22 games, their eighth in 15 Big East games, their seventh in eight tries.

“You’ve got to hold service,” coach Mike Anderson said after his 400th career win, after the Johnnies paid the Musketeers back for a 69-61 loss in Cincinnati on Jan. 6. “This is the time of year. It was an exciting game, up and down, it was fun, a lot of shot-making.”

What separates St. John’s from most of the muddled members of the Big East’s middle class, and from the other residents on either side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, is how deep they are, and not just in a token way. Anderson played nine guys Wednesday and all nine were essential to the cause.

“It’s like Coach says: we have eight starters,” said Marcellus Earlington, one of those bench players who ruined Xavier in this one. “Everyone goes in and plays hard, plays their minutes.”

Julian Champagnie watches his three-pointer go in.
Julian Champagnie
Robert Sabo

That isn’t always easy in the college game. Kids don’t get big minutes right away, there is always the transfer portal. There are always other campuses, other coaches looking for help in a hurry. Rare is the team that can keep that many players happy.

Of course, the way Anderson’s teams play, guys are happy to take a shift on the bench every now and again in order to catch their breath, and not to pass out. And guys such as Earlington (16 points, nine rebounds in 21 minutes) and Isaih Moore (11 points, five rebounds, 19 minutes) are more than happy to step into the breach.

“We know how good we can be,” Earlington said. “We go out there listen to the coaches and play hard. We take our practices into the game. We enjoy playing with each other, we play, we listen to the coaches.”

In many ways, Earlington represents the very best of what St. John’s is now. From the moment Anderson was hired the worry has been: Can he recruit New York? Can he recruit nationally to make up for his lack of history in New York? Fretting about recruiting is a full-time job for most fans of college ball.

And yet Earlington was here when Anderson showed up, recruited by Chris Mullin out of Don Bosco Prep in North Jersey, a football power at which Earlington excelled in the school specialty. He could have gone just about anywhere to play big-time football. That seemed to be his college calling card.

But the kid loved basketball, not football. Mullin gave him the opportunity, but it was the arrival of Anderson and his two-platoon system that allowed Earlingon’s game the proper vessel for what he does well. He may not look like a classic perimeter player, and he’s not, but he sure knocked down his first four 3-pointers Wednesday. He was one more hole Xavier needed to plug. And couldn’t.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to get the win,” Earlington said, and that is a team-wide mantra, and it has allowed the Johnnies to turn a 1-5 start in the Big East into where they are now, needing just to hold serve against DePaul and Providence and steal one against either Seton Hall or Villanova to likely solidify a place in the Indianapolis Invitational in a few weeks.

“It’s a four-game season,” Anderson said, all business as usual, an earnestness that pulses throughout his team.

The big guys, they’ll be ready for those games. And so will everyone else. At St. John’s, in this fine, fun season, that much is certain.


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