Last season, depth, inexperience, and Steve Lavin's prolonged absence, held St. John's arm's length from success.
In theory, two of the three factors could have been overcome, under the correct circumstances. Rosters with limited to no upperclassmen leadership can win games. With the right personnel, it's plausible to get it done with a cast of assistants calling the shots; the head coach is just one of a team staff effort.
But that first factor - depth - isn't as forgiving to a young team. It's a crushing disadvantage.
Players need rest. It's the whole point of maintaining a five to seven-man bench. Last season, St. John's fought through much of the schedule with six or seven players in total, depriving them of the luxury of reserves. Players couldn't play aggressively, fearing foul trouble; players couldn't take a breather. Combined with a lack of experience, depth heavily cost the Johnnies.
The Red Storm has curtailed its devastating depth problems by bringing in its second top recruiting class in a row to complement last season's veterans. Including the transfers, the group includes 3 top-100 players and a coveted junior college forward. JaKarr Sampson, Chris Obekpa, Orlando Sanchez, and Marco Bourgault headline a group that, on paper, transforms the weakness into a strength.
How will Lavin distribute the playing time?
"Similar to my first year here at St. John's, we're at a point where we know we have depth," Lavin said at Red Storm Tip-Off. "But it's too soon to decide how we will slot in starters and at what point we will bring in reserves."
It's something that Mike Dunlap never had to worry about in the twenty-nine games he filled in for Lavin during his prostate cancer recuperation. Come January and February, anyone could have penciled Moe Harkless, D`Angelo Harrison, Phil Greene, Amir Garrett, and Sir`Dominic Pointer into the lineup. It's all they had.
It is too soon to determine playing time or starting lineups. The team has not yet hit the hardwood for a game that matters. It all depends on how the newcomers integrate with the returnees, how well they can grasp the system, and how they perform on game day.
In 2010-11 when Lavin took over the job, the Red Storm had a relatively deep team in need of a new identity. No matter how much or how little those seniors had played in their first three seasons prior, they needed to earn their roles. An early season tournament, then as now, is a helpful tool in sorting out the playing time questions.
"It's the great thing about playing the exhibitions and going to Charleston, where we'll play three games in four days," Lavin continued. "Going to Alaska a couple years back really helped us in that regard. And some of the tough losses to St. Bonaventure and, in particular, to Fordham were the turning points to our entire [2010-11] season. Some of the questions will be answered through the hardships and tough times."
With a still-inexperienced squad, hardships and tough times will once again be unavoidable for this year's version of the Johnnies. Much like the early season losses in 2010 and losses to Northeastern and Detroit a year ago, St. John's will hit bumps along the road. The hope is that they will learn during the process, and in turn find that desired identity - with the benefit of a full depth chart.
"The hope is that we'll be able to win games while we tinker with and figure out the combinations that will put us in the best situation to give our team a competitive edge," Lavin told assembled reporters, excited to finally coach the squad entirely of his own recruits.
This is Lavin's team, and the in-season decisions will be his as well. Welcome back, coach - you'll have plenty on your plate.