Even though St. John's missed NCAA Tournament, Mike Dunlap deserves credit for keeping ship afloat in absence of head coach Steve Lavin. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)
Next in the series of Big East reviews is a team that captured the imagination and attention of the nation with their 2011 NCAA Tournament run, only to have arguably the most difficult transition the following season.
Following an early exit from the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2002, the buzz for this past season at St. John's University was at an all-time high. With the nation's third-best recruiting class on their way to Queens for their freshman seasons, head coach Steve Lavin was riding a wave of popularity and momentum not seen New York sports since Joe Torre's run of four world championships in five years with the Yankees a decade prior. Then, the Red Storm was dealt one crushing blow after another.
From Lavin's offseason prostate cancer diagnosis to three of his recruits being declared ineligible, St. John's suddenly went from a deep young team to a seven-man rotation before one player took the court for the opening tip of the season. One month later, point guard Nurideen Lindsey abruptly transferred midway through the year to leave assistant coach Mike Dunlap; who replaced Lavin six games into the year after the head coach admitted his brief four-game comeback was premature on his part, in charge of the youngest team in the nation, one with only one reserve until Amir Garrett was cleared to join the Red Storm in December.
Garrett's arrival pushed the ranks back up to seven, but that was only temporary until Malik Stith; a junior who was the last remaining connection to both the NCAA Tournament team and previous coach Norm Roberts, left the team in February. For what it's worth, the 13-19 record St. John's managed this past season may be a letdown; but in the grand scheme of things, finishing just six games under .500 while playing six men and an all-freshman starting lineup over the second half of the season is just as good as an NCAA Tournament appearance no matter how much Lavin and the coaching staff discount moral victories.
The rebuilding for St. John's was made harder two weeks ago when forward Moe Harkless announced his intention to declare for the NBA draft off a season in which he was named the Big East's Rookie of the Year. The 6-8 Harkless averaged over fifteen points and eight rebounds over his one season at the collegiate level following a prep career that finished at South Kent in Connecticut after starting in the shadows of St. John's at Forest Hills High School, and was the team leader in several statistical categories. With Harkless out of the picture, shooting guard D'Angelo Harrison; a Texan who was the Johnnies' leading scorer, becomes the face of a still young program. Harrison averaged seventeen points per game as a freshman and shot 37 percent from three-point range in a year that saw his game mature at an incredible pace as the season went along. Point guard Phil Greene transitioned well from playing off the ball in the wake of Lindsey's departure, and will be a mentor to Texas A&M transfer Jamal Branch once the Kansas City product becomes eligible in December. Swingman Amir Garrett should have a breakout sophomore campaign after showing increased improvement down the stretch, while Sir'Dominic Pointer's defensive intelligence will complement junior college transfer God'sgift Achiuwa under the boards.
Lavin has already received two verbal commitments for next season, one of which came from Jakarr Sampson, an Ohio native who had previously signed with the Red Storm last year before being one of the three prospects (along with Garrett and Norvel Pelle, who is still reconsidering where he will sign) declared ineligible. St. John's has also picked up a verbal pledge from developing shooter Felix Balamou, a 6-2 guard from Long Island. At the present time, the Red Storm are also heavily involved with Brooklyn swingman Thaddeus Hall as well as big man Chris Obekpa, a high school teammate of Balamou who is said to be choosing between St. John's and Cincinnati.
It was a long road back to respectability and success for St. John's when a senior-laden team got the program back to the promised land. However, if anyone can replicate the positive results on and off the court; Steve Lavin has already proven that he is more than capable, and his full-time return to the bench next season has already gone a long way in restoring the hope of a fan base desperate to embrace a consistent winner.