St. John’s basketball remains confident as young duo blossoms

St. John's basketball guard Rafael Pinzon (Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports)
St. John's basketball guard Rafael Pinzon (Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports) /

The St. John’s basketball team remains confident ahead of its showdown against Villanova. 

Things are starting to feel a little different in Queens surrounding the St. John’s basketball program.

The Johnnies (13-6, 3-5 Big East) looked to have turned a corner after playing improved basketball in its last three games while picking up victories in its last two outings, most recently against No. 6 UConn in Hartford.

The victory gave life to St. John’s slim NCAA Tournament hopes but now comes the hard part of winning games you are supposed to win.

St. John’s hosts struggling Villanova (9-10, 3-5 Big East) on Friday night (7:00p.m. ET, FS1) under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden in front of an expected crowd of around 13,000, but the Red Storm remain confident in its resurgence behind its blossoming young duo of Rafael Pinzon and AJ Storr.

The guards received a boost in playing time due to the injury of Montez Mathis (toe), who does not appear anywhere close to returning.

Storr has been inserted into the starting lineup and the freshman has not disappointed with double digits in each of his last two games and posted consecutive season-high minutes of 20 and 25, respectively.

“I think these guys are more ready now. They’re battle-tested,” head coach Mike Anderson said of Storr and Pinzon following Sunday’s victory over the Huskies.

The two have combined to shoot 6-of-15 from 3-point range and 17-for-30 from the field in St. John’s last two games. The hot shooting has opened up driving lanes for Posh Alexander and more room to work in the paint for Big East Player of the Year candidate Joel Soriano.

“They both space out the floor and are very good shooters,” Soriano said on Thursday afternoon in Queens.

AJ Storr had a career performance the last time he took the court against Villanova with 15 points in only 18 minutes but Rafael Pinzon missed the game with illness.

St. John’s basketball hoping for consistency from Rafael Pinzon

Things have rarely fallen in favor of Rafael Pinzon since he arrived at St. John’s.

He broke his finger in a loss to Indiana last season just weeks prior before a bout with COVID-19 sidelined him for nearly two months.

Pinzon revealed on Thursday that doctors informed him last year that he had heart inflammation as a result of the virus and couldn’t sweat while he dealt with the illness.

“Thank God I’m playing now and healthy now,” Pinzon said.

The Long Island Lutheran product has since dealt with an ankle sprain that kept him out this season as well as another battle with COVID-19, although he was only sidelined for two games because of the illness but recalled testing positive a second time as “a little bit [scary].”

Pinzon knew that he had to earn his way back onto the court for the Red Storm but his work has resulted in three straight games with at least 18 minutes and averaging 10.6 points per game in those outings.

“I really needed to earn [minutes] in practice,” the sophomore said of his process in getting back on the court.

In fact, Rafael Pinzon has played 18 minutes or more in eight games this season and scored at least nine points in seven of those contests.

“I’m feeling confident [in my game], but I’m just trying to win,” Pinzon explained.

St. John’s will need to utilize much more of Rafael Pinzon and AJ Storr if they want to rack up the wins and give the NCAA Tournament selection committee something to think about in March.