NEW YORK—After St. John’s beat Pittsburgh, a game in which D.J. Kennedy scored 11 points, grabbed seven rebounds, and recorded two steals, teammate Justin Burrell said, “I love when D.J. plays well. When D.J. plays well it elevates our team to a new level.”
The Johnnies were flying high that afternoon after pulling off another upset at Madison Square Garden. Kennedy, a Pittsburgh native, had finally beaten the Panthers for the first time in his career.
Contrast that to the scene at the Garden yesterday. St. John’s was not only eliminated from the Big East Tournament by Syracuse, it lost Kennedy to a knee injury that will prevent the senior starter from playing in the NCAA Tournament.
“When he went down I was kind of shocked,” senior point guard Dwight Hardy said. “We knew we were losing one of our best players for the moment.” Hardy went on to praise the team’s depth before conceding that “to lose a player like him who does everything for us is crucial. We’re going to have to find a way to excel.”
Kennedy leads St. John’s in rebounds (5.6 per game) and steals (1.8), is second in assists, and third in scoring at 10.4 points per game. He is a do-it-all type of player, a 6’5 swingman with long arms who affects the game on both ends of the floor. Behind Hardy, the team’s leading scorer, he was probably St. John’s most important player.
Hardy and senior forward Sean Evans talked about how others will have to step up in Kennedy’s absence, how everyone will have to contribute a little more. Burrell agrees. “No guy can step in for D.J. No guy will be able to do that,” Burrell said. “Everybody on the team has to pick it up a little bit. There’s definitely no way one person can do what D.J. does.”
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim was asked what it’s like to lose a key player at this juncture of the season. The Orange played in last year’s NCAA Tournament without starting center Arinze Onuaku after he was injured in Syracuse’s Big East Tournament opener, which it lost. “Look at Georgetown—they haven’t won a game since [starting point guard and second leading scorer] Chris Wright went down. They went from a top 10 team to losing four in a row,” Boeheim said. “You can’t absorb a loss like that, especially if you have three key guys. Maybe you can lose a guy if you have great depth. Last year we did have good depth so we were able to survive and win a couple of games and we could have won a third game in the Tournament. It’s difficult to lose a guy like that, there’s no question about it.”
One thing St. John’s certainly has going for it as it enters the NCAA Tournament (where it is currently projected as a No. 6 seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi) is depth. Nine players average at least 11 minutes; seven of them are seniors. Even without Kennedy, it’s a deep, experienced team.
But how will the emotional toll of losing such a well-liked teammate affect St. John’s? Without time to process it, the Red Storm put on an admirable performance. Down 12-5 when Kennedy got hurt, St. John’s only lost by six to the No. 11 Orange.
After the game, the Red Storm players appeared dejected. For them to think of the program participating in its first NCAA Tournament since 2002 without one of the players who helped get them there was difficult.
“If he doesn’t get to play with us, it’s going to be devastating,” Hardy said. “But we’ve still got to play a basketball game at the end of the day and we’re going to play as hard as we can for D.J.”
“I don’t think it’s going to feel the same because we lost one of our brothers. It’s hurting me, I think, as much as it hurts him,” said Evans, Kennedy’s best friend on the team. “If he doesn’t get to play it’s going to be hurtful, but I think it will be fuel to the fire. You’ve got my word, I’m going to play as hard as I can for D.J. and for the rest of my teammates.”
It’s hard to say how it will go. With the sadness expressed by Hardy, Evans, and others came the message of determination as well. Players and others associated with the program have launched a “Do It for DJ” campaign on Twitter.
“I’m really proud of our players,” St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin said. “Losing D.J. Kennedy to an injury, and having to step up and find a way to counter-punch without one of our key contributors, speaks volumes about our players’ character and resiliency and their will to win. And that will serve us well next week in the NCAA Tournament.”
- When asked about the purpose of conference tournaments, Lavin mentioned that one of the benefits is that it gives teams near the bottom of the standings a reason to continue to work hard in practice, knowing they still have hope of reaching the NCAA Tournament. I completely agree. The fact that the Atlantic 10 only allows 12 of its 14 teams into the tournament is ridiculous. This year’s tournament is a great example: one semifinal will feature No. 9 seed Dayton vs. No 12 seed Saint Joe’s, meaning one of the two will get a chance to play for an automatic bid to the Big Dance on Sunday. Who’s to say one of the teams left out couldn’t have made a similar run?
- Syracuse freshman center Fab Melo is averaging less than 10 minutes per game, but played 22 against St. John’s after seeing 16 minutes of action in Syracuse’s previous game. The reason? Extra practice time. The Orange had seven days between its final two regular season games, and then another five before its Big East Tournament opener. “I think those practices were huge for him,” Boeheim said. “He’s worked hard in practice.” Melo has played well, too, and it will be interesting to see how much of a factor the 7-footer is going forward.