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Next Up - St. John's

Duke takes on the city's team with Coach K's 1,000th win on the line.

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The national spotlight is firmly on Duke and Coach K until Duke gets K's 1000th win.
The national spotlight is firmly on Duke and Coach K until Duke gets K's 1000th win.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

For a non-conference game, a St. John's game always has a special feel.

When it's at Cameron, you can see the New Yorkers all week, just quivering with excitement at seeing their two favorite teams go at it. And the process is similar in reverse as the many Duke grads and fans in New York get a rare treat.

This year's game is going to be interesting on a lot of levels, most obviously because Coach K is trying for his 1,000th victory.

That's astounding and remarkable, but as he'd no doubt be the first to tell you, if that's his focus, he'll be trying again next game and maybe the game after that.

The focus is St. John's, and rightly so. Steve Lavin had some hiccups after he took the job, and he's had some injury issues this year, but there's no doubt that, at a minimum, he's made the Johnnies into a dangerous team.

Lavin of course got his head coaching start at UCLA, where, no doubt partly due to youth and inexperience, he was pretty erratic.

His teams could be monstrous or awful, sometimes in the same game.

No one doubted his ability as a recruiter though; Lavin stocked UCLA with plenty of talent.

After he wore out his Westwood welcome, Lavin worked for ESPN for a while before taking the St. John's job just before the two halves of the old Big East - the football and non-football halves - finally called it quits (we argued for years that that arrangement didn't make sense and would ultimately have to change).

Having learned from his UCLA tenure, Lavin made it a point to hire and old boss, Gene Keady the former Purdue coach.

Having an experienced coach on the bench is a trend for younger coaches. Steve Wojciechowski hired someone at Marquette; at Northwestern, Chris Collins took a slightly different tack and hired Brian James, his high school coach, who had solid experience running a program, albeit in high school.

He knows his way around.

Keady, who has abandoned his notorious (and increasingly futile) combover, no longer works on-cout with Lavin but is available as a special assistant.

He also has Jim Whitesell, who has extensive head coaching experience at Loyola and also D-II and D-III gigs. He worked with the late Rick Majerus at St. Louis as well.

Lavin appears to have learned a lot from his UCLA experience, but his career continues to be dominated by swings in fortune, both personal and professional.

Most notably, he had surgery for prostate cancer in 2011, which limited his availability for a time.

And he has continued to recruit well, but still lost players. This year, Lavin lost 7-0 Adonis De La Rosa and 6-8 Keith Thomas to academics. Thomas also came with a rap sheet.

Lavin also tried to recruit Dominic Artis, who was booted from the Oregon program after a rape investigation.

Perhaps he wasn't fully aware of St. John's own sexual scandal, but the university wasn't having it.

So Lavin has grown, but he's still Lavin.

And his teams still tend to yo-yo a bit.

After a seven-game win streak, the Johnnies started conference play 2-4, opening with losses to Seton Hall, Butler (sort of the anti-Lavin program) and Villanova before Providence. St. John's lost to DePaul in overtime, then nipped Wojo's Marquette by three.

Between academics and injuries, St. John's is down to a six-man rotation, and a smallish team, too.

Lavin leans on D'Angelo Harrison, Rysheed Jordan, Phil Green, Sir'Dominic Pointer, Chris Obepka and Jamal Branch.

Harrison and Jordan are 6-4, Green 6-2, Pointer 6-6, Obekpa 6-10 and Branch 6-3.

Surprisingly, only three players are from New York; traditionally, St. John's can have a subway recruiting budget. That's striking because one of the main criticisms of Lavin's predecessor, Norm Roberts, was that he didn't maintain ties with city talent.

Actually, make that two. St. John's official site  still lists Adonis De La Rosa. His brother, Joey, is a senior, also huge (Adonis is 7-0 and 322; Joey 6-11 and 249) and lists his favorite book as "Green Eggs and Ham."

St. John's has not shot well, with only Pointer over 50%. Harrison and Jordan are both at .430 and against Marquette, Harrison was 3-18.

Despite being 6-11 and playing inside, Obekpa is hitting just .471. Branch is slightly better at .477.

St. John's is pretty poor from three point range, shooting just 31.2%, which is 263rd nationally.

Obekpa is one of the nation's better shotblockers at 3.6 blocks per game.

Obviously he'll get Jahlil Okafor and that's one of the real keys of the game.

If Obekpa gets in foul trouble, who guards Okafor? Could it be De La Rosa - Joey, that is, not his Dr. Suess loving little brother - or perhaps Amar Alibegovic?

For St. John's, with a tight rotation and little reliable size, stopping Okafor is key. If he gets going, St. John's has a big problem.

Duke also has Justise Winslow up front, depending on his health. He got banged up on several occasions last time out and likely rested a good bit this week.

Amile Jefferson has also really come on for the Devils. You can double team Okafor if you'd like, but either of those guys can make you pay.

And Duke's backcourt, we'd think, matches up fairly well with St. John's.

Given St. John's offensive woes, Duke may opt to zone again, but man-to-man pressure on a six-man rotation could do the job just as well.

We've grown used to playing St. John's and watching city kids drive at all cost. It's amazing, really - you'll see relatively small players just attack the rim on a regular basis.

This St. John's team has as many Africans as NYC players though, which seems very strange.

Then again, this is Lavin's team. He's in one of the great talent beds of America, with the dominant team in the city, but has just two city kids on the roster?

Somehow it'll work well enough to keep him employed. Will it work against Duke?

Hard to say. We could see a brilliant performance or a rout. Teams take on their coach's personality, and Lavin, as always, is all over the map. He's one of the more interesting people in the game because his teams are totally unpredictable.