DENVER – St. John’s lost a standout player in the Big East tournament, but gained a quasi-assistant coach.
D.J. Kennedy, a 6-foot-5 swingman who ranks in the Red Storm’s all-time top 12 in scoring, rebounding and steals, suffered a torn ACL in his right knee early in a quarterfinals loss to Syracuse. It was a devastating setback for a player who, along with nine other seniors, has helped return the program to prominence after missing the last eight NCAA tournaments.
But there was Kennedy on Selection Sunday, smiling and cheering when the Red Storm landed a six seed and a date with No. 11 Gonzaga on Thursday at the Pepsi Center. During a send-off pep rally Monday on campus, Kennedy hobbled with a bulky knee brace onto the court to take his place alongside teammates.
“Throughout this whole thing, I’ve thought about D.J. and wondered how he would feel,” senior forward Justin Burrell said. “To see him being his lively self and excited for us and himself, because he’s still very much a part of this team, made me excited. D.J. is one of our leaders. From the day that we came into St. John’s and stepped foot on campus, he’s been one of our leaders.
“We knew right away that we’d be able to lean on him in our time of need. So for him to be around and step back and coach us, we will definitely listen to him.”
Head coach Steve Lavin said watching the Selection Show was bittersweet for Kennedy, who leads the Red Storm this season in rebounds (5.6) and steals (56), and is third in scoring (10.4). He’s started 125 career games. He was the team’s top scorer as a junior and led in minutes played as a sophomore.
“D.J. has handled the injury and the disappointment with grace and class and that speaks volumes about his character,” said Lavin, who theorized that the loss of Kennedy might have dropped the Red Storm one spot on the seeding line. “We understand that we wouldn’t be here in the NCAA tournament without D.J.’s contributions. The greatest way that we can pay respect and tribute to him is to continue the journey, to continue to play deep into March.”
St. John’s has several options to replace Kennedy’s average of 29 minutes per game. Senior Sean Evans, who, as one New York media member noted, was so deep in Lavin’s doghouse earlier this season that you had to dig it up to find him, started the second half against Syracuse. He’s played his best basketball of the season over the last six weeks. He made all five of his shots and scored 10 points in a win over Duke. He had 24 points and 21 rebounds in two Big East tournament games.
Freshman Dwayne Polee II, who starts but hasn’t played 20 minutes in a game since logging 31 against Notre Dame on Jan. 8, could see additional time. Senior guard Malik Boothe, often the first guard off the bench, could start if the Red Storm choose to go small.
“The last couple games as I’m getting more time and opportunities, I was just trying to step up because I know my team needed it,” Evans said. “With D.J. down we’re going to need somebody to step up and I know I can do that now.”
Evans had a couple of T-shirts made with the inscription: “DOITFORDJ.”
“Once we saw our names on that screen there was nothing but joy in the room,” senior guard Dwight Hardy said. “The first person I looked at was D.J. because he’s not going to have the opportunity to play in this game or any other game we may play as we advance. But we’re there for him.”
Kennedy is looking forward, not backward.
“It’s going to be tough on me to be on the bench and seeing the games from a different point of view,” he said. “But I’m going to make the best of it and learn, stay positive and help my teammates any way I can.”
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