The St. John’s Red Storm kick off the semifinals of the 2014 NIT Season Tip-Off tonight against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Steve Lavin’s squad comes into the game at 3-0, but a spotless record does not fully explain their start. The Red Storm faced a halftime deficit against Division II Franklin Pierce, but rallied behind D’Angelo Harrison’s 31 points and 17 rebounds.
Richard Pitino’s Minnesota returns to the scene of last season’s NIT Championship at 3-1, with their only loss to his father’s 6th ranked Louisville Cardinals. The Golden Gophers are also dealing with an off-the-court issue, as sophomore guard Daquein McNeil has been arrested for two felony counts of domestic violence. Coach Pitino has not spoken on the matter yet, but it could be a distraction Wednesday night.
The next two games for St. John’s will be their first tests of the season. This year’s team has a reputation not unlike last year – supremely talented – and it will be interesting to see if the talent can translate into Big East success after returning four of last year’s starters. This year’s team is led in scoring by D’Angelo Harrison at 18.3 PPG and Rysheed Jordan at 17.3 PPG. The key to this season could be the success of 6-6 Sir’Dominic Pointer, who is playing terrifically in his first 3 games. He has been a stat sheet filler for the Red Storm, averaging 13 points, 7.7 boards, 1.7 assists, 2.3 steals and 2 blocks per game. The team plays its best when he is an undersized 4.
Minnesota comes into the season projected to finish in the middle of a crowded and deep Big Ten. Last year’s NIT champs, the Golden Gophers are in year 2 of the Richard Pitino regime and look to improve on last year’s success. Andre Hollins returns as the best player on a deep and balanced team, with a whopping eight players averaging over 5 points per game. This is a team that loves to share the ball, ranking 9th in the nation in team assists. The 5-9 Deandre Mathieu leads the attack with 5.8 assists per game.
For both squads this tournament marks an opportunity to get two quality non-conference wins, with the winner/loser playing Gonzaga or Georgia. Gonzaga certainly seems to be the best of the bunch, coming in undefeated including an absolute blowout against St. Joe’s. Hopefully we will see St. John’s continue the Big East’s sudden and unexpected dominance, most notably with Butler’s upset win over North Carolina in Atlantis. If St. John’s talent can come together, look for the Red Storm to be a force in the top half of a strong Big East.