Only a few hours before the St. John's seniors got the good news that they finally had made the NCAA Tournament, capping a rocky four-year ride, they got bad news that made their last lap a little rockier. Center Chris Obekpa was suspended for two weeks for an undisclosed "violation of team rules."
That announcement did not prevent players and fellow undergraduates from celebrating in the student center on campus Sunday. Sir'Dominic Pointer jumped out of his seat when the TV showed that St. John's will play San Diego State at 9:40 p.m. Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina. But Obekpa's absence will make their task more difficult.
"It definitely hurts, but we've got to go forward with the team we have. That's really all that matters at this point," D'Angelo Harrison said.
The loss of the ninth-seeded team's only imposing interior presence, a 6-10 junior who ranks fifth in the nation with an average of 3.2 blocks, comes on top of a late slump that featured a pounding from Providence in the Big East Tournament.
"We've got to stress that it's a new season," Phil Greene IV said. "Everyone's 0-0 now. We've been through a lot of adversity. We're a team that fights through it, so we'll be fine."
Steve Lavin did not elaborate on what Obekpa did to prompt the suspension, saying only, "You hope Chris learns from this experience."
Lavin had no qualms about making the announcement while the NCAA Tournament committee still was deliberating, even though it could have hurt St. John's seeding. "It's the right thing to do in terms of the committee having the information in advance so the seeding is appropriate and based off where we are as a basketball team," he said. "Your training kicks in and as a coach, you do the same thing you ask your players to, which is to put all your energy on the challenge that lies before us."
Obekpa's suspension called to mind St. John's trip to the 2002 NCAA Tournament, when Willie Shaw was suspended on the eve of the team's first and only game. Months later, it was revealed that Shaw's offense was possession of marijuana. The current junior, from Our Savior New American high school in Centereach, had considered transferring last year. So there is no telling what his future at St. John's will be.
For now, his behavior is more than a personal matter. His absence leaves a big void that affects players who have been waiting during four years of turbulence (such as Harrison's own suspension two years ago) for this opportunity. It could cost them a return match against Duke on Sunday.
No hard feelings, though.
"People make mistakes in life," Pointer said. "You have to move on and learn from it. He's my little brother. He'll be my brother for life."
Lavin said, "We don't need any one individual payer to try and be a superhero" and added, "We don't want to go in there with a tourist's attitude . . . happy to be there . . . We want to win games."
Harrison said the NCAA berth "was a great moment. It was four years in the making."
Pointer added, "I don't care who you are, where you come from. If you get in, you can make some noise."