Mo Hicks


angelo-harrison-st-johnIs D’Angelo Harrison (above) yelling at the barber who gave him that haircut?

With coach out for what was for all intents and purposes the entire season last year, his honeymoon period in Jamaica was effectively extended, so we thought it bad form to be heavily critical, when considering some of the errors the program made in 2011. While Lavin is perhaps already the best recruiter in team history, we are not able to say he is infallible, or that the mistakes made last year were not bad ones.  Lavin led the charge in a recruiting class in which his 4 best recruits had serious eligibility questions.  Nurideen Lindsey, the team’s shoot first point guard, had been rumored ineligible since June of 2011 but somehow got his course work done in time for last season.  But then Lindsey suffered an early slump and then essentially quit on the team, over some perceived dispute with interim coach Mike Dunlap, now the head coach of the NBA’s Bobcats.  It was a development that not only disappointed hardcore fans who bought into the Lindsey hysteria, but also one that begged the question, how exactly does a kid with so little character get recruited at all, let alone recruited for a leadership role?  Lindsey tried to downplay any controversy or that he was not a headcase, citing homesickness. So we guess Lindsey maybe was homesick for Phily in Queens but not in Oklahoma where he played his JC ball.

While Lindsey’s departure was not crippling to the program, that only happened to be the case because St. John’s had so few players on scholarship to begin with, and those mistakes in recruiting had already sounded the death knell for last season’s squad.  Nice that Lavin was able to walk away from a bad kid so easily, but that seems to be the only advantage really when your supremely touted recruiting class comes in undermanned and with so many eligibility questions that your roster is annihilated, and you can’t play full court basketball.

Of course the most disappointing recruiting loss the Johnnies suffered last year was that of perhaps the national class’s top big, Norvel Pelle.  Having a legitimate big man at the college level is a true luxury, even at class programs, and generally distinguishes elite programs.  Anyone who saw St. John’s struggle to score 20 points in the 1st half versus Kentucky should understand that concept very well.  Kentucky seemed to rack up more blocks than points in that 1st half of domination against us. But Pelle is another player dubious of character and intelligence who underscores the tenuous business of relying on the word of players, especially out of town players, when putting these classes together.

The 2 elite wing prospects that Lavin signed would both get to play for St. John’s, though getting them didn’t prove easy.  Mo Harkless, the team’s linchpin, brought tremendous honor to Lavin’s program when he was selected by Philadelphia in the NBA’s 1st round lottery, prior to being sent to Orlando in the Andrew Bynum-Dwight Howard deal.  But Harkless also had eligibility questions raised by the fact that at CTK, his Director of Basketball Operations was Mo Hicks, who now works on Lavin’s staff.  While Hicks was obviously brought in because of his sway with City kids, he isn’t allowed to recruit kids he coached in HS.  Thankfully the NCAA took mercy on Harkless, who had one of the best seasons of any freshman in team history.  Without him, St. John’s probably doesn’t win 10 games.

Yet, had he been ruled ineligible, then we may have seen MH suit up with this year’s talented but incomplete group of 2s and 3s.  If Harkless was to ride it out and stay on board, a kid like that with a man’s build, would have given the entire roster room to breath, while giving opponent 3s and 4s nightmares.  While we hate to play the what if he stayed game, and while we don’t like begrudging guys who have an opportunity to go to the next level, we feel like the absence of Harkless might keep the Johnnies out of the dance, especially after watching this young squad play a lot of up and down basketball already this year.  Struggling at home against NJIT is bad enough, but following such a squeaker with a flat performance against USF in Lavin’s return home to the Bay Area, after a couple days of rest and practice, even against a veteran team, is disappointing.

And so we have to mix in our first meaningful criticisms of Lavin’s program, which is a mixed bag of complaints about scheduling and recruiting philosophies.  In Lavin’s 1st year, St. John’s opened out west, also played UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, and now has trekked out to Frisco this year, all losses.

We get that a nice RPI comes from playing quality opponents out of conference and away from home, but when do we start winning some of these games?  We love that Lavin is here and we wouldn’t trade him for a second, but does having him mean a legacy of west coast losses?  Since Lavin is a Cali guy some might have the odd hope that he knows how to prepare teams to play on the west coast, but prior to last Tuesday’s game in Frisco, we all but knew that the team was headed for a loss.  When we thought about the halftime ceremony and how Lavin’s dad, Cap, was there at the game, we thought those things might have given St. John’s some extra oomph.  But it was a fantasy that was devastated early enough, as St. John’s was virtually down from the opening tip, causing us to ask ourselves how we could momentarily buy that Lavin west coast edge propaganda.

For stretches Tuesday night, St. John’s trailed very badly, which was especially disappointing when St. John’s cut the lead to 38-35 at the half, a run spear headed by a guy who looks spear headed with that odd fade, dynamic two D’Angelo Harrison, and then let SF get on a 14-2 run to start the second half and extend the lead to 52-37.  But we aren’t here to complain about the eventual loss, perse.  SF’s point guard Cody Doolin (14 Assists), orchestrating his team’s offense like a Steve Nash, seemed to have the ball on a string the whole night.  He is by far the best point guard we’ve seen this year.  That kid is a heady player who had his way with St. John’s young backcourt, except when St. John’s cut that 52-37 lead to 59-54 mid way through the 2nd half, when Lavin made a wise adjustment, putting Sir’Dominick Pointer on Doolin.  Pointer, widely heralded as the team’s best perimeter defender–another nappy headed kid–who had not really distinguished himself as a stopper to us, though Tuesday we saw that potential, as he played Doolin physically and step for step in the full court, until inevitable foul trouble necessitated a different matchup.  Pointer had at one point stolen an inbounds pass right under the SF basket, and was poised for a layup that would’ve cut the lead to 3 but he had stepped on the baseline, negating the play.  Pointer also displayed a very rough, east coast brand of defense that makes him perfect for the Big East.  You could tell that Doolin was uncomfortable with that matchup, as Pointer literally manhandled the upper classmen, reminiscent of star alum Ron Artest…um, we mean Metta World Peace, of course.

When we see the flashes that we did from Pointer, from the very promising young big Obepka, who may more than make up for not having Pelle, and from leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison, we can tell the team has a winning nucleus.  St. John’s got a reasonable contribution last night from Ohio native Jakarr Sampson, and though the highly touted freshman has shown flashes from the wing and around the rim, he’s still finding his way as he transitions to the college game.  Sampson was also part of the banner 2011 class who never made it on to the court last year due to eligibility issues, but at least he kept his word to Lavin and recommitted to SJU. He also must work on finding a better ‘do.  Is he the player he was hyped to be?  He’s had both fluid moments and struggles so far, but he does not seem to be in the same class of player as Harkless, even when rolling.

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St. John’s seems to have a lot of talent by committee.  At different points in the game we saw good things from Sampson, Amir Garrett (who also plays baseball and is a strong prospect for the Cincinnati Reds, as well as another bad hair member of the Storm) Pointer, Obepka, and D’Angelo Harrison, but they all seemed to run invisible for stretches as well, which worries us more from Garrett and Harrison, who are essentially veterans on this club.  We were glad to see Pointer flash his defensive potential, and really play to the bulldog persona we’ve heard so much about, but Pointer is not a guy who we feel teams have to worry about scoring, and is, at least right now, a very incomplete player.  The usually reliable Phil Greene who can be counted on to score and play a lot of smart minutes did neither Tuesday, and was largely invisible as well.  We aren’t picking on Greene so much as acknowledging that he doesn’t match up well with legitimate point guards.  The tone of the broadcast seemed to reflect as much, with the announcers, joined by Chris Mullin, echoing the notion that the difference between the teams was that USF has a Doolin and St John’s does not.  Hopefully Jamal Branch will balance that equation as soon as he is eligible, and Orlando Sanchez, a supposed beast on the interior, will allow St. John’s to have more success in the paint.

While we are optimistic about the program, we can’t go crazy about guys who aren’t eligible, as last year has reminded us.  It is also unwise to put too much stock in guys who haven’t played much college basketball.  While Branch is a transfer, and he may have represented the best point guard option available at his late signing date, we feel that St. John’s is having trouble making commitments stick, especially at the one, and that there were several freshmen point guards who stayed relatively local that are better players than Branch.

Sanchez could be this year’s God’s Gift, a guy with a lot of hype to live up to who probably won’t.  Notice how Lavin has GG moored to the bench this year when last year he was practically the toast of the town.  Sanchez could also be a guy who doesn’t get cleared to play.

We hate to come down hard on Lavin, who we would not trade for a second.  Judging St. John’s coaches calls for perspective.  Lavin is quite possibly the best coach and recruiter that we’ve ever had.  Maybe Lavin lost touch a little bit with recruiting matters last year, and if so, there are enough quality new players to suggest that he regained that touch.  And then we consider that there are ongoing eligibility questions surrounding the current squad as well.  While the program is light years better than during the Norm Roberts and Mike Jarvis eras, we feel that Lavin is plagued by stability issues, which is in no way meant as a veiled criticism of Lavin’s health problems.  Going back to Lavin’s first ever recruit, talented wing Dwayne Polee, who has since transferred as well, Lavin seems to bring in kids who have no strong ties to the community at St. John’s.  Polee may not add up to his freshman hype ever, but he would have been something this current team does not have: a contributing upper classmen.  And his presence, coupled with what would now be 3 years in Lavin’s system, would no doubt smooth the transitions of all these supposedly epic freshmen.  Truth be told, with all the turnover and whatnot, we were shocked when Amir Garrett came back to the team this year, especially in light of his ability to throw a baseball.

St. John’s is its own unique set of circumstances, so we don’t like comparing too much across programs, but if we did we’d probably wonder why Mike Rice has gotten Rutgers off the ground better, with virtually no inner turmoil.  Rice has made his recruiting base local, unlike Lavin, who, while recruiting some impressive locals, has a national recruiting base, reflected by a starting 5 with the 3 better players hailing from Texas, Detroit, and Chicago.  What we’d like to think is that Lavin is going to get the program rolling in full force, but it is year 3 already and we are looking at a very average team.  In a perfect world, coach Dunlap lays an excellent foundation in Lavin’s absence, with an intact 2011 class, which we felt, though a young squad, would have been a lot more talented than the team Lavin took to the tournament in 2010.

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In the actual world, St. John’s is almost starting from scratch in year 3 of the Lavin era, which puts them squarely behind most projections and the rule of thumb that says a new coach needs a good 3 years to turn around a flagging program.  We would have liked to see Lavin take the advice of coaches like Boheim and Calhoun who did not rush back too soon when similarly afflicted.  As much as we love Lavin, he’s not superman, and we feel the team would’ve been better off with a full year of Dunlap plus a full year of Lavin recovery time.

But we suspect that Lavin was indeed concerned, with the flighty nature and poor academic standing of his prized recruits, and that he feared even greater recruiting casualties.  That strikes us as more of a problem when one recruits so heavily nationally.  When kids have eligibility problems, they are likely to end up close to home.  Obviously college basketball is a tough business and it must have been a terrible feeling for the coach, who is a straight ahead guy, to lose traction in year 2 after generating such a healthy buzz around the program in such a short time.

We’d never judge the program’s savior too harshly.  As a St. John’s fan, it could always get worse, and we’ve even seen it border on the sublime.  In fact, we feel the university should extend Lavin’s contract.  Lavin is a national coach, a skilled recruiter, and is rebuilding St. John’s as a brand, which is a task that will necessitate a patient and understanding fan base.  Putting Harkless and Dunlap in the league–the first guy to ever go from a college assistant to a pro head coach, oh by the way–only reinforces the reformed St. John’s brand.

We don’t care that last year was a throw way season and as long as we see this young team make strides, we won’t get too wrapped up in its won/loss record.  What we do care about is the why and the how.  It is not often that the coach of a major program declares his own team dead in November as Lavin did last year, and when we see signs of continued stability problems like ineligibility and decommittments, then those are things we’d like to see addressed.

One suggestion along those lines is for Lavin to move away from JC players and other transfers, and to go harder at local products.  As we hear it,  Syracuse looks to have bested St. John’s locally the last 2 years, and next year as well.  One recruit choosing between the Red and the Orange said he had a better sense of Syracuse’s interest because they were more ‘present and diligent’ during the recruitment process. We are by no means a Duke but we do appreciate Coach K’s reluctance to take short cuts with that program.  Teams that take on a lot of transfers are more transient and less rooted, and so they in turn suffer more defections and NBA early birds, whereas a Duke suffers notoriously few.  We also think local kids are more likely to ride things out when closer to home.

St. John’s future is still enormously bright regardless even with these setbacks and delays, as long as Lavin stays, and we’d like to credit Lavin for bringing in a great class while recovering from testicular cancer, in the face of many questions about his future and that of the Big East.  Now we have to work on keeping that class at St. John’s, and finding a top flight point guard, preferably a local kid, not a stop gap national guy, to bind the whole thing together.

And oh yeah.  It wouldn’t hurt if a few guys found decent barbers.  We can live with growing pains, but these youngsters, who may not be from here, can at least rep NY in style.  While we might not always expect wins to be the norm with this evolving crew, we are definitely expecting a big performance on the garden floor Saturday against hack coach Tom Pecora (“nobody wanted any of us” LOL) and the second rate Fordham program.

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Steve Lavin, who has now missed consecutive games and 3 games total for St. John’s this year, will be interviewed by WFAN’s Mike Francesa in the 4 O’clock hour today. We are anxiously awaiting what will be Lavin’s most public and in depth remarks about the team an his health since being diagnosed last spring. The timing of the interview comes on the verge of St. John’s trip to Lexington to face Kentucky, which is the team’s biggest spotlight game so far. The interview and the trip to Kentucky will definitely impact on St. John’s recruiting as some recruits are questioning Lavin’s health, and the stability of the conference.

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Tonight at Carneseca in Jamaica, the St. John’s ‘Red Storm’ will open their season against William and Mary with Mike Dunlap running the team in place of Steve Lavin. Lavin is still recovering from prostate cancer surgery underwent on October 5th, and there doesn’t seem to be any concrete timetable for Lavin’s return. The team is in good hands with Dunlap running the bench. Dunlap will need to live up to his reputation as a mad scientist considering St. John’s tumultuous roster situation, dealt blows by the key ineligibilities of C Norvel Pelle, F Jakarr Sampson, and slasher Amir Garrett.

Imagine Maurice Harkless, shaping up to be the squad’s standout, was ruled in eligible for having had indirect contact with Director of Basketball Operations, Mo Hicks. It looked like the NCAA might come down on Harkless because Hicks had worked for Rice HS within 2 years of Harkless’s recruitment. Fortunately for St. John’s, Hicks had not coached Harkless within 2 years of his recruitment else the Johnnies would be starting a walk-on up front tonight.

The staff has done a great job recovering from the 3 big ineligibilities this fall, successfully re-recruiting most important big man Norvel Pelle for 2012-2013, getting the explosive Garrett cleared to play in January, and getting commitments from Ricardo Gathers and Darrick Wood for 2012-2013.

Unfortunately, St. John’s has not been able to get a renewed commitment from Sampson, who played lights out this summer at the various AM-IN’s, and who could have been the team’s best player. We hear that Lavin has found time to visit Sampson a few times since the ruling, leaving the door still open for the multi-talented Ohio native.

With the squad as is, even sans Lavin for now, we see a much more talented group than last year’s tournament team. This team still has God’s Gift Achiuwa (top) to man the middle, and Harkless and Sir’Dominic Pointer flanking him round out the best starting frontline they have boasted since Ron Artest, um, we mean Metta World Peace.

Our man Malik Stith (kidding), the only returning player of ‘note’ and the team’s elder statesman, will be in the backcourt mix, especially since he is the closest thing to a true point guard this team has. Not that his talent really justifies major minutes. Nurideen Lindsey, who comes to St. John’s from Phily by way of Redlands CC (Oklahoma), is a scorer who will be cast in the lead role. Lindsey too was nearly ineligible, and had to work diligently, so we hear, to earn enough credit hours to play. If you’re sensing a theme at work here about the quality of the St. John’s recruit in terms of character and academic standing, that’s not our drift. Character and academic standing of top recruits are problems that are pandemic within the sport. For proof of such, one need not look further than Storrs.

Lavin and co. have done a great job repopulating the program with talent, and that was job one. Lindsey, probably the team’s best weapon at guard, was discussed in many 2nd round mockups of last June’s NBA draft, despite the “lack of formal basketball” over the past 2 years. Two other very talented guards should see significant minutes, with D’Angelo Harrison of Texas likely starting and Phil Greene of Chicago likely coming off the bench.

The squad will be punched up considerably when the freakishly athletic Garrett can suit up in January. And though we love Dunlap and were thrilled when he announced he’d be returning despite interest from schools in need of a head coach out west, we also know Lavin’s return will be a big boost to the team.

While we are not oncology experts by any stretch, we are very concerned for coach Lavin. Obviously his situation is somewhat dicey. We thought it odd that his surgery would come during basketball season, essentially, and that his dr’s needed so much time to decide on a course of action.

Not to be flip by any means as we are sure the coach is in good hands. Still, we hate not seeing him, tie or no tie, running the bench.

At current, the Johnnies are favored by 8.5 pts tonight. Wednesday they will face Lehigh at Carneseca.

LET’S GO REDMEN!

Crack (https://crackbillionair.wordpress.com)

 

On a few occasions this season (prior to games vs. Northwestern, Georgetown, ASU, and Duke) we’ve had a warm feeling–positive expectations–about a given game.  Damn us for announcing in the past that we had no idea why.  Frankly, there’s only one real player on the team, one super athletic but raw freshman, lost in the half court for more than a month, and a collection of short role players.  No size at all.  Very under talented.  You know how much we love Steve Lavin and how thoroughly we have professed our love for him since second one of his tenure.  In fact, we had been torching AD Chris Monasch for his sluggish, trumped up pursuit (if you could call it that) of Billy Donovan and Paul Hewitt, but once we caught the slightest whiff of the Lavin to SJU rumors, we promptly cut it out.  It may have taken us 23 games to fully comprehend that Lavin has cooked up the good feeling surrounding the program with tireless recruiting efforts–for both players and coaches–courting and re-establishing the connections to St. John’s royalty like Chris Mullin and Ron Artest, and making a team out of the talent and size poor bunch he inherited from the inept Norm Roberts.

As former Knick big and esteemed commentator Len Elmore pointed out during the broadcast, Lavin might not have gotten all the ingredients in for this Johnnies squad, but he did “bake the cake.”  L-ELM???  We’d see Lavin as more like the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker.  Despite watching UConn recently light up Marquette on the road in the 2nd half, we felt the Lavin positive vibe last night.  Until Lavin chatted with former ESPN colleague Elmore in the tunnel prior to the game, and told the camera that Elmore would probably have a much better time watching that game than Lavin would.

Luckily, such talk was more low key Lavin and false modesty.  From about the 9 minute mark of the first half on, St. John’s destroyed a very good Husky team.  So St. John’s only has 1 offensive player?  If that guy is getting to the rim and looking for his shot, that guy, Dwight Hardy (above), showed Thursday that he’s all you really need.  5-8 from 3 pt. range, and 33 pts total, including 12 in a row on a Hardy to UConn 12-0 run, mixing long range bombing with a nasty ability to get in the paint and convert several conventional 3 point plays.  St. John’s weathered a late first half Husky run, took a small lead into the half, and then went on a 19-3 run spirited by Hardy, who took to heart his marquee matchup with Bronx rival and Big East scoring ace Kemba Walker.

So St. John’s, capping an NCAA record 7th straight game against top 25 teams, railed Connecticut in front of a decent Garden crowd, and are now 7-1 at MSG and 4-3 against teams in the top 25.  Their recent win against Duke was Duke’s worst out of conference loss in 20 years, and though they followed it with a stumble at UCLA in Lavin’s return to Pauley Pavilion, Hardy poured in 32 and the Johnnies had a chance late on the road in a very tough non-conference tilt.  Lavin had to have wanted that one badly, and the team had to have known it.  They brought incredible to focus into the UConn game, and for the 3 game set, couldn’t have gone a better 2 and 1.  St. John’s had an insane 22 rating in the RPI going into last week, and today, they notched a very impressive road win over Big East foe Cincinnati on the road.

They got the win today despite blowing a 52-40 lead late, and they couldn’t buy a field goal in the closing minutes of the game.  They did it with excellent position play and hustle, poise at the line, and confidence.  Hardy had another 18 today and nailed another 4 3 point field goals, but it came down to defense for the Johnnies, who were exploited a bit on both ends on the glass by the Bearcats.  UConn was unable to pull that off the other night when St. John’s, despite the lack of size, killed the Huskies on the glass 43-33.

Defense and hustle were also on display against the Huskies, who St. John’s seemed to run cirlces around.  St. John’s scored the first 27 fast break points of the game, and in the end, notched a 27-2 win in fast break points.  So much so in fact, that many Husky fans have been questioning HOF coach Jim Calhoun’s preparedness with regard to the St. John’s game. 

We were very interested to see how this team would respond today on the road after such an impressive win.  Especially when we heard Lavin’s post game remarks about the St. John’s mindset right now.  When the Johnnies beat Duke, Lavin gave the team 2 hours to celebrate.  No such break was issued Thursday night.  “That was the biggest game of the year.” he would say.  “Now, the next one is.”

This team has grown, and they are a very tough out despite the shortcomings.  All credit to Lavin, b.t.w., for taking a look at these kids and seeing that Dwight Hardy, who Norm Roberts didn’t rate as a starter, as the premiere player on the team.  And again, for hiring the staff that he did.  We’ve said it before and we’ll say it more.  Getting Keady was a master stroke, and what kind of guy would get a guy like Keady to come here at 70 something and do this while living out of a hotel?  Do not under estimate Keady’s influence on this squad.  They play extremely smart ball, and in the Keady fashion, they squeeze every drop out of their talent.  And how about the hiring of Mo Hicks?  Hicks, an NYC amateur basketball power broker, is no doubt part of the reason why high school sophomore phenom Isaiah Lewis (above) of Christ the King, is looking hard at the Johnnies, and who could be the top player in the nation in the class of 2013.  But then again, Lavin didn’t have Hicks yet when he landed Mo Harkless, who many have touted as the best player in NY in the 2011 class.  It helps with these kids that Lavin is always saying the right things.  About opponents, about recruiting, about the mindset of the team, his message to the team, or to legends he wooed and added to this dream staff.  Lavin is always making things happen, whether it’s a big win, celebrity pull, or another recruiting gem, like Chicago standout Phil Greene (below), who committed to St. John’s earlier this month.  Greene is a 6’2/6’3 combo guard who is expected to compete for a starting spot in next year’s backcourt , and who should receive quality minutes at any rate.

As we’ve mentioned, seeing Chris Mullin around the team, whether at Carneseca, MSG, or on the road (St. Mary’s) is also a big boost.  Or established NBA players like Dejuan Blair or Knick great Allan Houston.  And did you hear what Ron Artest said?

“They whupped on UConn.  They whupped on their butts.  And Duke too.”

On Lavin, Artest would say:

“Doing great.  I’m really happy about that.”

You and me both, RA.  And wait ’til next year, when they have a collection of A grade talent, which includes a scoring machine in Nurideen Lindsey at the lead, a top big in Norvel Pelle, and Harkless leading a cast of 8 other prized recruits.  The schedule isn’t falling off any time soon, but we’re looking for our boys to record a few other popping wins–regular season and tournament.

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