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March 16, 2011

STJ Footsteps: Collegiate Birth to NCAA Berth

Nearly four years ago, during the centennial celebration of the men's basketball program, St. John's University welcomed a new group of freshmen to the Queens, N.Y. squad.

Despite the then-present situation of not being as successful on the hardwood as many had hoped would happen by the 2007-08 season, there were few that thought the inexperienced, incoming class of the 100th year could amount to do anything that rivaled that of the Redmen/Red Storm glory days.

"Just be patient," said legendary, hall-of-fame coach Lou Carnesecca at the 100 Years of Basketball Symposium in December 2007. "If they stay here, they are going to make us proud."

What made him so sure? What made this group so different? Why believe in them? In fact, back in the 2007-08 basketball year, the rookie group included a promising big man with a lack of aggression in Justin Burrell, Sean Evans - a struggling high-post player that could not finish an open lay-up, a feisty, undersized point guard in Malik Boothe, Paris Horne - an inconsistent, dynamic leaper with defensive skill and D.J. Kennedy - an overzealous, do-it-all guy.

However, Carnesecca saw what many of us could not see. He saw the players' maturation process in a single instant - babes in the collegiate arena becoming seasoned men, correcting their errors of youth and conquering the best perennial powerhouse teams in the nation. Carnesecca saw past the long, stormy journey and envisioned a rainbow waiting at the end for those that stayed.

With the addition of junior college transfers Dwight Hardy and Justin Brownlee, nine special young men did not quit and chose to stay through the ups and downs, the ebb and flow of bashing and praise, player departures, unfruitful postseasons and coaching staff changes. And, finally, just as Carnesecca thought, they made the re-energized fan base proud by earning the program its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2002.

Hindsight is 20/20. If we were to look back to look forward, there was no stopping a dedicated group of freshmen that set high expectations for themselves early, even in the presence of naysayers.

"The legacy is big, it's very big, and it's the reason for my decision to come to St. John's," said then-freshman swingman Kennedy before he played in a collegiate game. "I'm a part of this history and just want to bring it back to where it used to be. [The other freshmen and I] have a great chance at bringing the program back."

Although he did not know it then, fourth-year veteran swingman Kennedy spoke correctly of a group of rookies who would later develop a brotherly bond, stick together against the hardships and dust off the St. John's record books. Unfortunately for Kennedy, the part of the story that was unforseen is an injury that prevents him from playing in the national tournament games - a desire he patiently waited, worked and had such high hopes for since grade school.

In the 2010-11 season, the Red Storm know that without Kennedy's point, rebounding and transition defense contributions on the hardwood, the Johnnies would not have earned an NCAA berth. However, since he tore his ACL in his right knee during the BIG EAST Tournament quarterfinal matchup against Syracuse last week, the Red Storm will be without the glue that brings all of its pieces together for the duration of the postseason.

And, because of this, "#DoItForDJ" - a statement showing up on Twitter tweets, Facebook pages and even T-shirts - is the newest campaign that has swept the campus since Kennedy suffered his season-ending injury.

Although the NCAA Tournament is unchartered territory, the Johnnies are depending on the veteran, poised leadership at the one from Boothe; the continued, veteran, offensive grinding of Hardy; the unmatched, veteran, perimeter defense of Horne; the peaking, veteran, skill-set in buckets and boards from Evans; and the confident, strong and veteran athletic moves of Brownlee and Burrell to "do it for D.J."

"It's going to be big for us, shows the hard work we've put in, but I don't think it's going to feel the same because we lost one of our brothers . . . D.J. is a big part of this team [and] this hurts me because we're so close off the court," said Evans after the Syracuse game, ". . . it's going to be hurtful but I think it's going to be fuel to the fire and we're going to have to step up. I'm going to play as hard for D.J. and for all my teammates."

Evans donned the black and red "#DoItForDJ" T-shirt with the phase "I Am My Brother's Keeper" on the back during the Selection Sunday show last weekend. It was then when the Johnnies were selected as a No. 6 seed to face No. 11 Gonzaga on Thursday, Mar. 17, at 9:45 p.m. in the second round of the one-and-done tourney.

Sure, emotions and energy will be high for their first and last invitation to the Big Dance, but these seniors, who are set to graduate in May, have been through every possible game scenario and have been on the losing end of many of those games for years. This postseason, the veterans are looking to close out a fairy tale season with a Cinderella run on its road to the NCAA Final Four before the clock on their collegiate careers strikes 12.

"Playing basketball is like making good music, you have to hit that right note to make it good," said Carnesecca in a one-on-one interview back in December 2007. "These players know they have to make that pass and make that shot to play good basketball.

"They'll hit that note."

Now, in their senior season, the veterans - whose dream was just to add a line in a once-storied program, hit that note, made good music and are dancing to it. And, no matter what happens, no one will ever forget that they did not leave New York City behind, they brought us back to the national stage so we can go to the Dance with them their first and final time.






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