CHARLOTTE, N.C. (CBSNewYork/AP) — St. John's coach Steve Lavin said that while center Chris Obekpa's suspension is "less than ideal," he still believes the Red Storm has what it takes to overcome the shot blocker's absence in the NCAA Tournament.
"We have had a number of stretches where we have had to play without Chris and been successful," Lavin said Thursday at press conference.
The Red Storm, the ninth seed in the South region, faces No. 8 seed San Diego State on Friday in Charlotte.
"Whether it was through foul trouble, being disqualified for a game or for a number of injuries he's endured, this team has found a way to offset the loss the Chris in games and stretches of the season and still been successful," Lavin said. "With that said, we understand with not having Chris at the goal as our protector will make it difficult for us."
The 6-foot-10 Obekpa started 24 of 30 games for St. John's (21-11) this season, averaging 5.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game. His 321 career blocks are the most in school history.
Obekpa's loss made St. John's bid to win its first NCAA Tournament game since 2000 a little more difficult.
"This is a group that knows how to problem-solve, persevere and make adjustments," Lavin told WFAN's Mike Francesa on Tuesday. "That's one of the advantages of having a number of older players who have been through the battles of college basketball."
For key seniors D'Angelo Harrison, Sir'Dominic Pointer, Phil Greene and Jamal Branch, Friday night's game represents their last chance to advance in the dance.
"Here we are, four years later," Lavin told Francesa. "There's no greater reward, nothing more gratifying, than seeing a group of seniors punch across that finish line and get to participate in March Madness."
St. John's Coach Steve Lavin
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said the Red Storm is still dangerous without Obekpa in the middle.
"Obviously they are not as good without him, but they are still good enough," Fisher said.
Things to watch in Friday's South region game between St. John's and San Diego State:
Not only will the Red Storm be without the nation's fifth-leading shot blocker, but they face a San Diego State team with plenty of NCAA Tournament experience. SDSU is making its sixth straight trip to the NCAAs, and nine players have tournament experience. St. John's hasn't been to the tournament since 2011 and has no players with that type of experience. But St. John's Khadim Ndiaye is looking at that in a glass-half-full approach. "I just think we're hungrier because we haven't been here, so I think that gives us an edge," Ndiaye said.
POLEE KEEPS ON MOTORING
Fisher said he was a little nervous when senior forward Dwayne Polee II returned to practice after collapsing on the court during a Dec. 22 game against UC Riverside. But Fisher has learned to trust the doctors that Polee, who was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, is no longer at risk. "He has no restrictions," Fisher said. Polee said he never thought about giving up the game despite having to go through numerous tests on the road to being cleared to play. "I wasn't going to let my situation stop me from playing," said Polee, who began his career at St. John's before transferring to San Diego State.
MORE THAN FRIENDSHIP
SDSU's Winston Shepard will be facing one of his closest friends when the Aztecs meet the Red Storm. Shepard grew up with St. John's De'Angelo Harrison in Houston. They met in middle school while playing on the same AAU basketball team. Harrison's grandmother would drive the two boys to games on weekends because Shepard's own mother had to work nights. "He's one of the people that I'm closest to in the whole world," Shepard said. "Like I say, he's my brother. ... Him and his older brother, they showed me a lot, and I love him. That's my brother."
What scares Fisher the most heading into the tournament is the Aztecs penchant for erratic shooting. "We've had games where you would say they can play and beat anybody," Fisher said. "We have had others where you would say they would not qualify for a good CYO team offensively. ... We scored 43 points in our final game in the Mountain West conference tournament. That won't win for you."
NO DECISION FOR JORDAN
St. John's Rysheed Jordan, in a rare media appearance, said he's not made a decision on whether he'll enter the NBA draft after the season. The sophomore forward is averaging 14.3 points for the Red Storm. Jordan said his focus right now is on the tournament.
(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
for more features.