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NCAA Tournament: It’s Go Time For Lavin, St. John’s

Justin Brownlee #32 of the St. John's Red Storm reacts after a play in the second half against the Syracuse Orange during the quarterfinals of the 2011 Big East Men's Basketball Tournament presented by American Eagle Outfitters at Madison Square Garden on March 10, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Justin Brownlee #32 of the St. John’s Red Storm reacts after a play in the second half against the Syracuse Orange during the quarterfinals of the 2011 Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament presented by American Eagle Outfitters at Madison Square Garden on March 10, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

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NEW YORK (WFAN / WCBS 880 / AP) – The only shooting for St. John’s senior D.J. Kennedy at this tournament involves a video camera.

Kennedy, one of the Red Storm’s most versatile players, tore his right ACL during the Big East tournament.

The injury hasn’t stopped him from soaking up the moment at the NCAA tournament. He’s capturing his team’s journey with his camera as the sixth-seeded Red Storm (21-11) face No. 11 seed Gonzaga (24-9) in the opening round of the Southeast region on Thursday.

Kennedy’s even holding out a slim hope that maybe, just maybe, he might be inserted into the game, possibly for a late free throw.

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A guy can dream, right?

Especially here, on this stage.

“If they need some, I know I can go in there and do that,” said Kennedy, who plans to have surgery on his knee in early April.

Kennedy paused, glancing down as he sat in the Red Storm’s dressing room. He quietly added, “I can’t wear the jersey. It would get to me too much.”

 

With Kennedy’s loss, the Red Storm lost not only its team leader, but its top rebounder, as well.

Asked about the significance of Kennedy’s absence from the lineup, St. John’s coach Steve Lavin didn’t mince words.

“A devastating blow,” said Lavin, who’s in his first season in charge of the program brought to prominence decades ago by Lou Carnesecca.

Given Gonzaga’s size – the Bulldogs have nine players at 6-foot-5 or taller – Lavin will start 6-8 senior Sean Evans in Kennedy’s place. He was a starter the last two years, but has been coming off the bench this season.

“It’s humbling knowing the reason you got in there is because of one of your closest friends is hurt,” Evans said. “Our focus is on the game. But it’s also on D.J., knowing what he put in for us. Him not being there is a big motivation for us.”

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The Red Storm are trying not to dwell on the loss of Kennedy, the player they relied so heavily on all season.

“There’s no one player that has to step up to try to offset the loss of D.J.,” Lavin said. “We need to do it collectively as a group, instead of one of our players trying to be a hero.”

Kennedy vows to contribute in other ways, such as doling out a few pointers, a couple of observations from his courtside seat on the bench.

“He is a great coach,” Evans said. “He might have a future in this.”

Down the road, maybe. Just not now.

“I’ve got to show them it’s not about me, it’s about the team, the group, the family we have,” Kennedy said. “This is a business trip.”

The business of basketball is booming again for St. John’s. The Red Storm are back in the tournament for the first time since 2002. They’re looking for their first win on this stage since 2000, when they beat Northern Arizona in the opening round. St. John’s was then bounced from the tournament by Gonzaga, 82-76.

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The Bulldogs are hardly strangers to the tournament, making their 13th straight appearance.

This trip, in particular, means an awful lot to Gonzaga coach Mark Few. His team started the season slow and there were times when an appearance looked like a long shot.

“You just keep plugging along,” Few said. “You get your team to just try to get back to doing the things that they had been successful at, try to maximize that, minimize some of the other things.”

Gonzaga found its stride late in the season, winning nine straight games, including the West Coast Conference tournament title game against Saint Mary’s to secure an automatic bid.

“This team was able to really draw a line in the sand, started winning games when we had to,” said senior guard Steven Gray, who’s averaging nearly 14 points and four assists this season. “It was tough realizing that this team, who’s put in a lot of time, really had some growth, wasn’t potentially going to get this opportunity to play in one of the greatest sporting events out there.”

And yet here the Zags are, playing a team they feel they stack up well against.

“They’re a feisty team,” Gonzaga center Robert Sacre said. “We know that because they battled in the Big East, so we have to respect them that way.”

How far will St. John’s go? Make your prediction in the comments below…

(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 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.)