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St. John's preparing for breakout season

NEW YORK (AP) - Optimism is always high around college basketball programs this time of the year.

Not a loss, yet. Recruits still are rated according to their high school exploits.

At St. John's, the smiles are much wider than the last two seasons and the answer to the most-asked question comes quickly and sincerely.

``This is our year,'' junior point guard Jamal Branch said Thursday at the team's media day when asked to assess the upcoming season. ``Not making the NCAA tournament, not making a run in the NCAA tournament, would mean we weren't successful and this team's too good for that.''

Branch is one nine players returning from last season's 10-man rotation that went 17-16 and played in the NIT. Add in two offensive-oriented redshirt transfers and the future is brighter.

Add highly regarded freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan and it's time to hand out sunglasses.

``Depth is a problem I embrace. It's a challenge I want,'' said coach Steve Lavin, who is starting his fourth season at St. John's. ``I know none of our players has ever been to the NCAA tournament but we have upperclassmen - boy, that sounds good - and that experience is what we will have for the first time. These juniors were the only scholarship players on the roster when they were freshmen. Now there are 13 scholarship players.

``And then there's Rysheed. He is the most skilled player I have ever coached and that includes Baron Davis at UCLA. This is a special player.''

Hearing what Jordan, a 6-foot-4 scoring, passing sensation from Philadelphia, thinks of his approaching rookie season will have to wait a while.

In the tradition of Hall of Fame coaches such as John Thompson at Georgetown and Dean Smith at North Carolina, who kept their freshmen off-limits to the media until they were acclimated to the program, Jordan won't speak to the media until late December.

``We're doing it for Rysheed,'' Lavin said. ``His mom has had some health issues and he's been so concerned over that. He had a close friend die this summer. He is experiencing being away from home for the first time, the separation from a family he is very close to and then there is the academic and athletic load being placed on him. That's a lot for a kid and I think we can help him by doing this. Look at it this way, he will be a nice Christmas gift for you guys.''

The school did provide some quotes from Jordan and he echoed Lavin's feelings.

``I wasn't used to it,'' he said of the adjustment to college. ``In college your body is more dead because you work hard in the gym then you work hard in the classroom. Then you go to study hall and work hard there, then tutoring I work hard then after that the day is mainly over and you're just dead and ready to get some sleep.''

Jordan, the Philadelphia high school player of the year who was rated by some recruiting services as the No. 3 overall player in the country, has made quite an impact on his new teammates and they know he can be the difference between playing well into March and having a third straight season without an NCAA tournament bid.

``Rysheed is a great passer and he likes to pass but he's really big and takes advantage of that to get in the lane and score and get to the line,'' said junior Phil Greene IV, one of the players whose minutes should be affected by Jordan's presence. ``Honestly, I'd give up minutes for wins. I will do whatever I have to do. Rysheed and I can play together and he makes everybody he plays with better.''

Among the returnees are Chris Obekpa, who led the nation in blocked shots (4.13) last season as a freshman, JaKarr Sampson, the big East's rookie of the year last season, and D'Angelo Harrison, the team's leading scorer with a 17.8 average despite being suspended by Lavin for the last six games of the season.

Harrison, who spent time this summer in his hometown of Houston with former NBA star John Lucas working on anger issues among other things, can't wait for the games to come.

``I'm just glad to be back on the team and it's a pretty good team,'' Harrison said. ``Any five guys can play and be good. You can't load up on any of us. Our depth is crazy.''

The Red Storm, one of the 10 schools in the new Big East Conference, open the season against Wisconsin in Sioux Falls, S.D. on Nov. 8.

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