Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, be there to welcome back the Fordham Rams, though it’s not a home game as they’ll be opposing the Red Storm of St. John’s and Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino. Regardless, it’s a New York college basketball game where it should be.
When Keith Urgo was appointed coach of the Rams, a game like this at the Garden is what he asked for. Two New York schools at the Mecca, St, John’s and their prominence representing the Big East Conference and a revival at Fordham, a program that reached the Atlantic-10 Conference semifinals in March at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
So the Garden is expected to be at full capacity, with a contingent of alumni and supporters of the visiting Rams and plenty of Red Storm representation. The storylines of Pitino and Fordham looking for a win against St. John’s, the Red Storm lead the all-time series 67-22, and took the most recent meeting 83-69 in Carnesecca Arena in Queens on December 5, 2021.
The Red Storm have former Fordham center Joel Soriano, an early season scoring leader who transferred two years ago when the Rams struggled and finished last in the A-10. Then, the Rams were inconspicuous and never in discussion as a rival to St. John’s.
Soriano left Rose Hill, as a few others did. Urgo arrived at Rose Hill as an assistant to Kyle Neptune, now head coach at Villanova. Urgo, though, has revived a basketball program and last year became “The Thrill at Rose Hill.”
“Dream come true,” Urgo said about the matchup after the Rams 60-59 win over North Texas Sunday at Barclays, a Abdou Tsimbila buzzer beater in the 2023 NABC Brooklyn Showcase. “Now get a chance to coach against a Hall of Fame coach. Couldn’t have imagined that against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden. Obviously, another chance for us to get better.”
Improving with a young roster mixed with the seniors, Fordham is 5-5. It’s been a tough non-conference schedule, something Urgo advocated with a tough loss to Tulane (89-81) at Rose Hill and win over North Texas, both of the American Athletic Conference.
But this is St. John’s (6-3) and also with Pitino, first head coach to lead three different schools (Providence, Kentucky, and Louisville) to the Final Four and winning two national championships. All eyes will be focused on Pitino, which is expected because St. John’s for decades has been the dominant New York college basketball team. Prior to Pitino, St. John’s has failed to reach the NCAA tournament and struggled to get there.
The Rams are prepared as Urgo always sees his team on a final exams break this week before another non conference tilt in the Garden. They are, as Urgo said, still looking for improvement. It will also be their last major test before conference play begins in a few weeks.
“Defense and rebounding, we needed that identity,” he said about their win Sunday. “Last 20 minutes as physical as we played since I’ve been here.”
Senior guard Antrell Charlton led a balanced Fordham offense with ten points, with four rebounds and an assist. Tsimbila scored eight with five rebounds, one of the Rams improving also with his three blocked shots. And sophomores are leading the balance, Joshua Rivera (eight), Will Richardson (eight) along with senior guard Japhey Medor also netting eight points.
Fordham won with a strong second half defense and held North Texas to shooting 9-for-30 from the field over the final 20 minutes with no three pointers, a testament to what Urgo said is improvement. The win was also another game on the schedule against a quality opponent as they gear towards that A-10 conference schedule.
But the emphasis Saturday is the revival of Fordham versus St. John’s. At one time it was former coaches Lou Carnesecca (St. John’s) and Tom Penders of Fordham who led the Rams to multiple NIT tournaments. Since then, St. John’s has continued to dominate headlines in a crowded New York region of schools that thrive on their college basketball programs.
This will be the 90th meeting between Fordham and St. John’s, previous 89 played the second most for a Rams opponent next to Manhattan College (115.)
St, John’s (6-3) was outscored 25-14 over the final seven minutes in their 86-80 loss to Boston College, also Saturday at Barclays. It was a loss that Pitino said was a fault of their defense. He said, “Trying to teach 23-year olds about defense and it cost us tonight.”
The Rams, though, are focused on their defense, 162 career steals for senior Kyle Rose including two against North Texas, 10th all-time for Fordham. So there will be emphasis on keeping the Red Storm off the board.
Urgo and the Rams will be rested. The Red Storm also realize the significance of this non conference game at the Garden, a win for New York college basketball and should be a key on their schedules in years to come.
Rich Mancuso: X (formerly Twitter) @Ring786 Facebook.com/Rich Mancuso