Thursday, December 15, 2011

State Of St. John's: A Roundtable Discussion

Despite not having head coach Steve Lavin for much of the season, St. John's is still trying to survive after last season's resurgence. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

Through nine games of the 104th season in St. John's basketball history, the Red Storm program currently sits at 4-5 following a 69-63 road loss to Detroit ten days ago. With a break in the schedule to accommodate final exams before the Johnnies take the court again this Saturday against Fordham in the Holiday Festival, St. John's was dealt yet another blow in a season filled with adversity when point guard Nurideen Lindsey announced his intentions to transfer effective at the end of the semester. With two games remaining before the boys from Queens open their Big East ledger against Providence at Carnesecca Arena a week from Tuesday, I wanted to provide an in-depth breakdown of the team most of us have grown to love in some way, shape, or form; perhaps even more so than we already have. However, I couldn't do such a thing alone, so I decided to turn this into a group effort. Joining me in this "meeting of the minds" will be two men who are not only emotionally attached to the corner of Union and Utopia as students and fans, but also as media members who see this team up close and personal just like yours truly does: WSJU sports talk radio host and contributing writer Kieran Lynch; and St. John's resident Joe Benigno, fellow WSJU sports talk host and Rumble In The Garden columnist Quinn Rochford. Along with me, Kieran and Quinn will chronicle the nine games prior to this point in a question and answer session that I like to call the first-ever "State of the Johnnies" address.

1) Nine games in, is the team where you expected it to be; and if not, what specifically has held it back?

Jaden Daly: Being that St. John's was going to enter this season with the youngest team in school history regardless of what transpired during the year, it came as no surprise to see this group struggle early on. Despite every obstacle thrown in the way of the Red Storm just five weeks into the 2011-12 campaign, being 4-5 with a schedule that has already seen three ranked teams appear on the ledger is just as good as being undefeated and the No. 1 program in the country. It's been said that things have to get worse before they can get better, and St. John's fans can definitely relate following the Pittsburgh incident in 2003. This group may not immediately replicate last season's NCAA Tournament appearance; but if they can float around .500 for the remainder of the season, it will be just as good.

Kieran Lynch: Any person that has followed the St. John’s program for any stretch longer of time longer than a year is familiar with dashed hopes and realistic expectations. This year is no different. As one of those aforementioned individuals, nine games in to this new era, I can’t take any issue with where this team is right now. Sure, everything could have gotten off to a better start, but cancer didn’t cooperate. Neither did the academic side of things. One could possibly say that had head coach Steve Lavin been around, things may have been different. Maybe he helps this team to victories against Northeastern and Detroit-Mercy, maybe even keeps them within striking distance of Kentucky. From the looks of it, one of the major reasons that guard Nurideen Lindsey is transferring is due to the absence of Lavin. The same list of scenarios could have played out differently had Amir Garrett, Jakarr Sampson, and Norvel Pelle qualified in September, but they didn’t. This team is severely undermanned and undersized and has taken their lumps because of it. Now, with Lindsey jumping ship, this tiny group is even smaller. We may very well be looking at a mediocre beginning to a brutal season, but the future is even brighter for these players once you add their coming experience to the mix.

Quinn Rochford: As close followers of St. John's basketball, we could have realistically projected a season defined by struggle. The reality of it is that we were a bit jaded by the excitement that surrounded the program throughout the spring and summer. Kieran can vouch for this as much as anyone: All we wrote about throughout August and September was the positive momentum that Steve Lavin had built with the NCAA Tournament appearance and heralded recruiting class. Every day was a new batch of good news. Then the news of Sampson, Pelle, and Garrett's ineligibility hit the world like a ton of bricks. No one saw something that drastic coming. I'd say it was then that expectations for this season changed. If on November 7th, just before the opener with William & Mary, you told me that St. John's would be 4-5 through nine games, it would have had to be acceptable. Youth and inexperience does pay its toll; but the way it has happened, especially with Lindsey's recent departure, a lot has changed in a month.

2) Which player has impressed you the most this season, and why?

JD: This may come as a surprise, but it would have to be Sir'Dominic Pointer. From the moment the Detroit native made it official by signing with Lavin last spring, all I knew about him was that he was a 6-5 swingman with a penchant for suffocating defense. Through the first few games, Pointer had slowly been brought along as the first substitute off the bench in a seven-man rotation. Such a gradual evolution would normally make a player's grade incomplete, but Pointer has provided so many more intangibles that even those close to the program could not have envisioned. From his ability to steal at one end of the court to his knack for driving the length of the floor for a bucket seconds later, the Motown product has become the X-factor that this team has so desperately craved for a long time. The departure of Nurideen Lindsey (more on that later) will likely enable Pointer to establish himself in the starting lineup, and will make his invaluable presence more of a common occurrence.

KL: All of these fresh faces have seen their ups and their downs in this small sample size of about a month. One player that stands out to me as being both collected and talented is Phil Greene. Greene has shown the ability to play the point, work an offense; and know when to drive, shoot, or dish it out. With the departure of Lindsey; Phil is going to be the go-to-guy as the distributor, and I think he is up for the task. He has shown he knows how to control a basketball in coverage and appears to have a high basketball IQ. A calm and collected figure in press conferences, he is always talking about working hard and being there for his teammates, which is something that will pay dividends for this team in the long term. Starting this past summer; all the way through the exhibitions, each member of the team mentioned Greene as the guy who was going to surprise everybody. He has risen to the challenge and now it is a matter of him growing fully into his new role.

QR: I've seen some really great things from each of the newcomers thus far. Throughout the bleakness of the last seven games, these guys have each shown something that Johnnies fans can be excited about. For me, that guy is Moe Harkless. There is something to be said about being productive. There's something way different that can be said about being productive and consistent. Harkless has shown that ability through nine games. He seemed to be pushed along early to become the face of the program, and he's backed himself up on the court. It seems unfeasible that any of these kids will leave (at least to go pro, anyway) after one year. Having Moe around for at least another year will be a treat for the Red Storm faithful.

3) Regardless of outcome, what has been the best performance from this team so far?

JD: It may not have been the prettiest of the Red Storm's four wins, but it would have to be their victory against St. Francis. After four minutes of a defensive struggle on both sides, St. John's caught fire when D'Angelo Harrison took matters into his own hands and dominated a weak Terrier defense from beyond the arc on the way to a career-high 21 points. Honorable mentions would have to include the win against UMBC and losses to Arizona and Texas A&M at Madison Square Garden. There are two common threads to those three matchups; and one would be Nurideen Lindsey being a critical factor for better or worse in each one, from his flirtation with a triple-double against UMBC to fouling out in the Arizona game when he started to take it over in the second half, and of course the two missed free throws against Texas A&M. For the record, the other similarity came in the stands of each game; and there are only about four other people who can truly appreciate this significance.

KL: Each of these past nine games, win or loss, has been a growing experience for this squad. Every game has its share of positives and negatives. With that being said, my pick would have to be the Lehigh game at Carnesecca Arena. St. John’s started the game behind as they do most times, (at one point being down 16) only to fight back and overtake Lehigh down the stretch to give them their first exciting win. You may read this and say “Huh? An early November game against a mid-major?” Yes. That game marked the original return of Steve Lavin, and it showed what this team was capable of when it plays cohesively with the man who recruited them doing ballerina leaps on the sideline.

QR: This is a tough question. The most spirited performance and the one in which the team seemed to be the most together was the close loss to Arizona in the 2k Sports Classic. Despite some serious foul trouble, Lavin's group led by eight points within the final ten minutes. Though Arizona hasn't even been the best Wildcats that St. John's has faced in a month, Sean Miller's team is pretty impressive. It's almost as if St. John's threw its chips into the middle of the table that night, to reference the great Jim Fassel. Once Lindsey fouled out and they ultimately lost, the air seemed to suck out of the team. They've been 1-4 since and have relinquished a considerable amount momentum, but the Arizona performance probably exceeds the four wins in terms of quality.

4) Now that Nurideen Lindsey has become the latest player to transfer, who do you expect to pick up most of the slack in the lineup?

JD: Losing Lindsey deprives St. John's of a double-figure scorer on paper; but fortunately for the Johnnies, Steve Lavin (when he returns) and his coaching staff have the services of a combo guard who is actually better suited to run the point than play off the ball. Through the first nine games, Phil Greene has shown flashes of brilliance while still trying to adjust to a Division I style of play. In addition, Greene's best moments thus far have come at Madison Square Garden; and the Chicago product will get the opportunity to run the Red Storm's uptempo offense at the "World's Most Famous Arena" for the first time on a full-time basis in just two days. If all goes well, Greene's performance will leave the fans feeling as though the program hasn't missed a beat since Lindsey's exodus became public a week ago.

KL: Going back to what I said about Phil Greene being impressive in the early going, he is going to need to pull the most weight after the departure of Nurideen Lindsey. Greene is going to feel a little bit like God’sgift Achiuwa has recently, as he will have no true replacement. Malik Stith will no doubt get more minutes, but it will still come down to Greene when it matters. As they say, every experience is a learning experience.

QR: Even though Nurideen wasn't considered by most as a true distributive point guard, he did run the offense. With that said, his decision to transfer hurts. St. John's is left with just six scholarship players until Amir Garrett is expected to return Wednesday, when St. John's hosts Texas Pan-American. Lindsey's departure creates a gaping hole that will need to be filled quickly if the Red Storm want any hope at success this year. I expect Phil Greene's time running the point to increase exponentially. It will be interesting to see how he fares with the added responsibility. Greene has shown that he can handle the ball and shoot a bit. Another guy that will see more minutes is Sir'Dominic Pointer. Pointer's defensive prowess will see the spotlight even more than it has thus far, but he'll need to become more aggressive offensively. St. John's fans would love more opportunities to yell: "Oh, Sir'Dom! You're a bad man!" (Credit STJ-TV play-by-play voice Tony Luftman for that signature quote) Lastly, Amir Garrett will provide some spark for the team. Since I've personally never seen him dribble a ball or attempt a shot, I'll leave further analysis for later.

5) As both a fan and media member, which game are you: a) looking forward to most; and b) most concerned about given the lack of depth on this team?

JD: The answer to the first question has to be the home game against Syracuse on February 4th at the Garden. Syracuse has historically treated the Garden like a second home court, and has even gone as far as to deem itself "New York's College Team." For fans here in the Big Apple, this claim by the Orange is viewed as blasphemy; yet Jim Boeheim's group has always managed to take their game to another level when they converge under the bright lights of midtown Manhattan. St. John's will also be playing with something to prove as they take on Syracuse and their world-famous 2-3 zone defense for the first time since their spirited Big East tournament battle in which D.J. Kennedy tore his ACL just six minutes after the opening tip. From a professional standpoint, I have to say that the Red Storm will face no greater test than the one they will get in Hartford on December 31st when they take on reigning national champion Connecticut. UConn will be without head coach Jim Calhoun due to an NCAA-imposed suspension, but the Huskies still have talent that can match up with St. John's in nearly every facet possible. Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier have become one of the best backcourts in the country, and freshman Ryan Boatright has been to the Huskies what Kemba Walker was off the bench in his rookie campaign three years ago. Moreover, 6-11 big man Andre Drummond has what St. John's does not: Size and a dominating interior presence.

KL: To put it simply as a fan, I’m looking for revenge. Two dates that rank high on my top games list are both at the Garden against Fordham and Syracuse. The former is fast approaching this Saturday as part of the Holiday Festival, while the latter will take place deep in the “gladiator pit” of Big East play in February. For the sake of revenge after last year’s debacle in the Bronx where St. John’s blew a 21-point lead, it is important for St. John’s to win against Fordham. Hopefully the coaching staff educates these new players about the recent history to give them a little extra motivation. They’ll need more than motivation, however, when they welcome Syracuse into town on February 4th. If you asked me if St. John’s could beat Syracuse right now, I’d say no way. Come February, the possibilities could be a little different. By that point, Syracuse will have been forced to leave the confines of the state of New York to enter Big East play. If there is one thing a college basketball fan knows, it is that no team leaves the Big East schedule unscathed. The hope as a St. John’s fan is that the team from Queens can be the ones doing the scathing to the team from the north.

QR: I'll keep the fan hat on for this question because, let's face it, that's what I am! There a few games that I'm really looking forward to, and the fun begins very soon. When the Johnnies face Fordham at the Garden on Saturday, St. John's looks to return the favor of pain to the Rams for last year's debacle at Rose Hill. Two games later, St. John's will welcome Providence to Carnesecca Arena for the Big East opener. No matter which way you look at it, this game will be winnable. It would be a great boost for this program and its fans if the team can start off conference play on a positive note. There are two more games I'm really looking forward to, which also fill the quota for the depth concerns. You guessed it, New Year's Eve up in Hartford and February 4th at the Garden. With the current roster, St. John's will struggle mightily against the Huskies and the Orange; but this guy can hope, can't he?

6) How much longer do you envision Steve Lavin's absence lasting?

JD: Lavin admitted that he may have returned prematurely when he made his triumphant comeback two games into the season, so the smart money is on the charismatic head man taking his time before he returns for good. At just 47, Lavin definitely has time and age on his side; and the coach will undoubtedly weigh that heavily before pulling the trigger on another trip to the sidelines. Most people will expect Lavin to make his next comeback before conference play opens on the 27th; but I'll be conservative and go with the Louisville game on January 3rd instead, with the sole reason being that Lavin wants to return at nothing less than 100%.

KL: With the state of the program at this present moment, I don’t see a way that Steve Lavin isn’t back on the sidelines by the end of the month. While I’m not his doctor and have no idea about how much energy he currently has, I’m sure he understands what he needs to do to get this program back up and running 100% again. I wouldn’t rule him out this Saturday since the game will be played in Manhattan. (Not like in Kentucky or Detroit) I think realistically, he’d be back by Big East play. If he weren’t, there would be a lot of uncertainty going into the top level of college basketball. I don’t know if this team would be ready for that, and I’m sure Lavin knows that. Obviously, the recovery period is a long one; (and who knows what is really happening) but if I had to hedge my bets, I would put it on Lavin definitely being back by the start of the Big East against Providence.

QR: When I was ignorant, I said he'd return for the Arizona game and remain on the sidelines for good. Then he came back eight days earlier. Then he announced a further absence. It was then that I came to the realization that Steve did. This recovery process is nothing to be playing around with. That was serious surgery that Lavin underwent, and recuperation should be taken equally as seriously. Jim Calhoun; who has dealt with prostate cancer and the same surgery before, told Lavin that the recovery process will last at least 2-3 months. Since that time period is now reaching fruition, I would expect Lavin back any day. With Lindsey's transfer announcement, this group needs its leader more than ever. A realistic expectation would be December 27th against Providence, but he needs to do what he needs to do.

7) Given everything this team has endured, what would be a reasonable expectation for St. John's when conference play opens?

JD: The emergence of Seton Hall and Georgetown coupled with teams like Providence and DePaul that have shown signs of improvement in their nonconference schedule should temper expectations for St. John's once the real season begins, that of the 18-game course in natural selection more commonly known as Big East play. We knew coming in that the Red Storm would need to pull off a miracle if they had any hope of reaching the 12-6 league mark that last year's team set, but this team isn't going to lay down and die either. This group could conceivably finish above .500 in Big East play; but just like Lavin's return, I'm not going to make a bold prediction and be left holding the bag for it if it doesn't work out. I'll be conservative yet again and go for 8-10 in conference, because there really are a lot of winnable games on the conference ledger for the Red Storm.

KL: With everything that has gone on, I think finishing .500 in Big East play would be a realistic and positive expectation. This team will surely have mind-numbing losses and big time wins in that stretch of time; but once again, this is all a growing process. The sooner Lavin returns, the better chance this team has of winning more games. As much as people like to say it, this team misses something without its leader. When you see Lavin come back, I think you’ll see the winning come back as well.

QR: Ultimately, this team's success is going to depend on a few factors. Obviously, the sooner Lavin returns to the sidelines, the better. There is no way around the fact that St. John's is a better, more confident bunch with Lavin around. Mike Dunlap has done a respectable job filling in for him, but he isn't who these kids came to Queens to play for. The six regulars all need to improve their games. It's safe to say that Harkless, Greene, and Pointer have improved since the first game. The Johnnies need God'sgift Achiuwa, D'Angelo Harrison, and even Malik Stith to join them. Lastly, it remains to be seen how much Garrett will help this team. A Lindsey-for-Garrett trade will virtually be completed on Wednesday. If Greene is able to run the point adequately, Garrett's size could be an added asset. In the end, St. John's isn't going to have as much conference success as it did a year ago. It's impossible. I would say if this team reaches seven Big East wins, they would have done a good job.

8) On a scale of 1 to 10; with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest, where would you rank the stability of the program heading into the 2012-13 season?

JD: Even with three recruits ineligible and one from next year's class having reneged on a verbal commitment all within the span of three months, St. John's has a lot to look forward to since Steve Lavin is still running the show despite his health concerns. Anyone who doubts Lavin's recruiting ability and track record needs only to look at what the coach has accomplished in just 21 months on the job. From signing Dwayne Polee (who has since transferred) just weeks after being introduced to bringing in (at the time) the third-best recruiting class in the nation, Lavin should not have a problem overcoming his latest handicap. Besides that, everyone on this team will be back next season barring any additional transfers. Dick Vitale once said that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores; so having the core of this team for a second season will only enhance the ubiquitous buzz around the Red Storm program, and whoever decides to join the party as freshmen will be embraced from the start. If I had to pick a number, I would say the stability is at a 7 given both the current state of things and potential for what lies ahead.

KL: I would have to rank the stability of the program at a 6 or a 7 right now. The stability is 100% affected by the recruiting classes of the future. Losing Lindsey obviously hurts; and with the rescinded commitment of Ricardo Gathers, things don’t look pretty. However, that can all change in a heartbeat. Gathers has stated that St. John’s is still at the top of his list, and hopefully things will stay that way. If Lavin can convince Gathers to recommit to join Darrick Wood and then pick up one more solid name for the class, things will be solid for St. John’s. The real moment of truth (and Lavin has stated this himself as a goal) is going to be the 2013-2014 season, as St. John’s chases big name recruits to complement the would be experienced core group that are currently freshmen. In my view, that will be the year that we will truly see the return of St. John’s to the national spotlight and there is no better time than my final year on the Queens campus.

QR: The problem with ranking the program's stability is that we really don't know how stable it really is. Lavin has lost Lindsey, Ricardo Gathers, Jevon Thomas, JaKarr Sampson and Norvel Pelle to either transfer or decommitment. It makes you ask yourself: "What the heck is going on here?" Under the assumption that Lavin's health will reach full strength in the near future, it is safe to say that the program will be fine. There's a solid core of talent to work with. These kids have nowhere to go but up in terms of experience and effectiveness. We'll wait and see who Lavin is able to bring in as 2012-13 recruits in the coming days and months. Lindsey's decision to transfer gives rise to a lot of questions regarding program stability; but until told otherwise, I'll say that there's enough here for a strong foundation with a bright future.

It will be an interesting second half to the season for St. John's, and I hope all of you will be there to join us as we watch it all unfold. I would like to once again thank Kieran Lynch and Quinn Rochford for joining me in this venture, and invite all of you to follow all of us on Twitter as we keep you updated with college basketball at and beyond the corner of Union and Utopia throughout the season. You can follow Kieran @Kieran_Lynch, Quinn @QSTJHoops, and of course yours truly @DalyDoseOfHoops.

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