The major conferences in the NCAA have entered into rivalries/partnerships within the last decade. The Big Ten and ACC, the Big 12 and the PAC 10 and the Big East and SEC have scheduled interesting matchups. The last of the three groupings scheduled a doubleheader at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday evening.
The opening contest featured New York City’s traditional basketball powerhouse, St. John’s University Red Storm (7-1) against the University of Georgia Bulldogs (4-4). St. John’s was for many years one of the premier basketball programs in the nation. The school ranks seventh in Division I victories, 1,693, and ninth in winning percentage in Division I games. The team has fared poorly since the controversial and unsuccessful years the team was coached by Mike Jarvis. The team, thus far this season, appears to be improved.
The Red Storm, on the familiar court of MSG, where it was appearing in its 638th game, took an early 9-3 advantage. The visitors, after its 9-3 scoring run, tied the game at 12 with 11:58 remaining in the half. St. John’s scored 8 of the next 10 points to achieve its biggest lead of the half, 20-14. St. John’s not only never relinquished the lead, but increased it to double digits in the second half. The final score was 66-56. Red Storm coach Norm Roberts spoke enthusiastically of how his players closed the game in the second half, “I thought we played with more energy in the second half. We were much better defensively. I thought we turned them over, which is what we needed to do, and I thought we finished plays better and moved the ball better in the second half.”
Interestingly, four of the men were starting their first game of the year. Sean Evans, D.J Kennedy, and Paris Horne were not in the starting lineup for the first time this season. All three upperclassmen were late for the team bus to MSG, and were kept from their normal starting spots. Roberts explained, “If you have seniors showing up three minutes late or whatever, what are you telling our freshmen? That they can show up late too. D.J., Paris and Sean are great leaders, great kids. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they do everything we want them to do, but today they were a little late, so it was a good teaching point, learning point…I think it is important for our guys to learn from mistakes because everybody makes them and try to turn a negative into a positive.” Justin Burrell also did not start for the first time this year. He sprained his right ankle in the team’s last contest, and is expected to miss three weeks of action.
The usual non-starters did an excellent job. Evans spoke with high praise of the job done by the newcomers to the team who were in the starting lineup, “I think that is a big from our team. It shows we have depth. A lot of people stepped up today. It took a load off from me. Everybody came off from the bench and played well.”
The second game was an elite match-up of highly ranked teams, each of which had its large group of vocal supporters in the arena. The University of Kentucky Wildcats (9-0) kept its record unblemished as it won a close victory over the Connecticut Huskies (6-2). After the first four minutes, the game appeared as if it would be a rout as the Wildcats took a 12-0 lead. The game turned into a “barn burner” after the Huskies scored the next 10 points. The 18-16 Kentucky lead with 9:17 remaining in the first half was its last until it recaptured the advantage with a 41-40 score with 11:35 left in the contest. Jerome Dyson, with 13 points in the first half, put the huskies back into the fray. The 64-61 Kentucky win gave the team a 9-0 mark. This was the first time since the 1930-31 season that the winningest team in NCAA Division I history has started a season this well. The fourth ranked team in the nation is carrying five freshmen on the roster. Three of them had major roles in the victory. The player of the game was John Wall, who scored 25 points and had six steals. Kemba Walker, who guarded him in the contest, said, “He’s not a freshman at all. The ball is always in his hands and that’s good for him and his team.” Calipari, the former New Jersey Nets coach, who was booed lustily when introduced before the game, was not enthusiastic about his team’s play, “We were lucky to win. We got to get more consistent. We’re a 4-5 club.”