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.
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.
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.