St. John's basketball fans have little reason to dampen the hope for a resurgence in the program. Or a reason to think that Steve Lavin is "playing dirty" in the world of college basketball. What happened this week is just a bump in the process.
Yes, Norvel Pelle, Jakarr Sampson, and Amir Garrett are ineligible, and the issue seems to be three classes the players took at Northeastern Prep in Philly, per Pete Thamel of the New York Times. It's a tough blow for a fanbase filled with such hope after a top 5 finish in the Big East and a celebrated recruiting class, even if the players are reportedly trying to become eligible for second semester.
But there are no quick fixes in college basketball (with the possible exception of John Calipari). More, below.
I. Where St. John's has been.
The St. John's basketball program has wallowed in ten years of mediocre basketball.
The St. John's basketball program has had about four years of relatively sustained success in the past twenty years.
At issue has been a combination of poor coaching and underwhelming talent; the expectation that one good player can carry a team (only the greats can); an inability at times to recruit that good player who can carry a team; players who couldn't live up to the high expectations of being top-30 recruits; and players who couldn't help but get caught in troubles.
Many players just aren't as good as they were against high school competition. But to compete in the Big East, a coach needs the top-100 players. Look around the league and see the teams that never rate in the recruiting rankings.
It' nice to think that hard work, discipline, and dedication can create a winner, talent be damned. It's just not true, even for coaches like Bobby Knight. For coaches not named Knight, that's a recipe for languishing at the bottom of a league. Talent doesn't ensure winning. But a lack of talent ensures NOT winning. And a lack of winning doesn't just get coaches fired; it loses interest in the program. Losing makes recruiting more difficult.
II. The reality of big-time hoops
In recruiting a 9-person recruiting class, Steve Lavin went after every available player he could who was known to be a possible difference maker.
One reason many of these players were undecided on colleges was because they had eligibility issues to clean up. Not Maurice Harkless, who was not enamored with possible plans for U Conn to use him as a power forward, and not D'Angelo Harrison, to my knowledge.
But many of the young St. John's recruiting class have seen the halls of more than one high school. Jakarr Sampson left St. Mary's/ St. Vincent's in Ohio to Brewster Academy to become college-eligible. Norvel Pelle had been to a trio of high schools. Amir Garrett had been to three high schools as well. Sir'Dominic Pointer had transferred, as as Phil Greene.
Rampant transferring can be the mark of a recruit's wandering eye for exposure. Or a recruit looking for a fix for a lack of academic concentration in high school. In these cases, the academics obviously played a role; a player needs a mix of a GPA score and a certain offsetting SAT score defined by the NCAA's sliding scale (.pdf). Even if they are admitted to the University.
One would love to see a coach recruit players who don't have eligibility worries, players who took care of their grades early and/or late in high school. But that's not the reality of recruiting for teams that aren't at the top. It's difficult to attract talent to a school that has barely tasted success. For a coach trying to recruit the 9-player hole he inherited from Norm Roberts, risks had to be taken. And sometimes, the NY Post takes a shot at the coach who takes risks and gets burned, as Steve Lavin has, essentially painting the coach as loose with standards.
The funny thing?
Norm Roberts' first team consisted of walk-ons. His second team should have had some notable talents like Derwin Kitchen and Jermaine Maybank... but they weren't eligible per the NCAA. Rob Thomas was a partial qualifier and sat out a year. His last huge class was - after the 11 total transfers from the Roberts regime over 6 years - made of good players.
And they did not win.
And fans stayed away.
To tar Steve Lavin with charges of being loose with standards is to ignore the reality of college basketball. Many players just do not care that much about academics, and those were the players available to jumpstart the program. Were there other players for the taking? Sure. Possibly. And none of them would have had the potential impact of the players Steve Lavin signed.
Hopefully, Pelle, Garrett, and Sampson will appeal and/ or retake the classes in dispute and at least two of them will suit up in red and white.
III. The talent upswing
Still, right now there may be better raw talent practicing in Taffner Fieldhouse right now than St. John's basketball has seen in a decade, despite the losses. It's just the depth is severely lacking.
St. John's basketball will play one returning junior (Malik Stith), a former walk-on in Jamal White, two junior college players in God'sGift Achiuwa and Nurideen Lindsey, and four freshmen, Maurice Harkless, D'Angelo Harrison, Sir'Dominic Pointer, and Phil Greene. Among those eight players, there are 3 consensus top-100 players and two top-25 Junior College players.
And the difference between that decimated 8-man roster and the 11-man roster the team was planning to field may be negligible - the recruiting class would take some lumps with the difficult schedule and their youth. Ballin' Is A Habit spoke on that yesterday, and on how the recruiting class would take some lumps. Jeff Goodman said it as well, though I don't know that Mullin and Wennington are panicking over a few recruits.
This is just a bump in the rebuilding process, a flat tire to be fixed. No program goes from the gutter of the past ten years to the penthouse overnight. It's a process that comes with bumps. The coaching staff is already on prospects for 2012, 2013, and beyond, and those players are interested in the Red Storm. With a talent base already on campus that should be competitive in the Big East, the re-boot of the program has already started.
It's still the dawn of a new day in the program.