Sunday, October 17, 2010

In Kim We Trust

If any coach around the country defines underrated, it is surely St. John's women's basketball leader Kim Barnes Arico, who in just nine years has taken a virtually nonexistent Red Storm team and built it into a national powerhouse. (Photo courtesy of redstormsports.com)

St, John's University has unfortunately been the Rodney Dangerfield of the Big East conference in recent years; that is, the men's and women's basketball programs have received little or no respect from the rest of the country. That has changed gradually over the last few years; and while the men are starting to regain credibility with the hire of new head coach Steve Lavin, their counterparts on the women's side have been much quieter on their uphill road to success, led by a coach who was lightly regarded for years until finally breaking through in a relatively short amount of time.

At just 40 years old, Kim Barnes Arico may be a young leader, but her experience and record truly belies her age. After inheriting a team that went 3-24 before taking the job in 2002, Barnes Arico has managed to get the job done one year at a time, including guiding the Johnnies to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in just her fourth year, losing to eventual national champion Maryland in 2006. Two years later, Barnes Arico's team pulled off the biggest win in program history at that point with a home victory over top 10 team and Big East rival Notre Dame at Carnesecca Arena, one that I was on hand to call for WSJU Radio.

However, that wasn't good enough for Barnes Arico or St. John's, who followed two consecutive WNIT appearances with a year to remember in 2009-10, which included yet another upset win over the Fighting Irish, as well as the school's first-ever top 15 ranking and a return to the "Big Dance," where the Red Storm fell a basket short of the Sweet 16.

While being praised by fellow Big East coach Geno Auriemma among others, Barnes Arico has deflected the credit from herself and passed it on to her players, who have progressively become better and helped enable St. John's to be a national player in recruiting. There was a time when Angela Clark and Kia Wright were the only recognizable faces of the St. John's program. All that has changed, as Barnes Arico has managed to turn standout high school players into future stars in college, with players such as Da'Shena Stevens, Sky Lindsay and Shenneika Smith all thriving under her system; not to mention former productive scorers the likes of Monique McLean and Kelly McManmon, as well as rebounding specialists Joy McCorvey and Tiina Sten.

This year, the Red Storm return the bulk of last year's team as they look to continue their upward movement. McCorvey and McManmon are gone, but Lindsay and Smith remain backcourt anchors, along with sophomore Nadirah McKenith, who told me at St. John's annual tipoff event this past Friday that she expects a big year from Coco Hart, who returns for her senior season and will likely start alongside preseason All-American candidate Stevens up front.

Regardless of who St. John's sends out to the hardwood, one thing remains certain: They have garnered everyone's respect along the way, and it would not have happened without the coach who, although still not a household name, has managed to do more for her program than some of the legends of the game.

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