by Peter Walsh / @ayo_petew
Carnesecca Arena sits just outside the sprawling streets of midtown Manhattan on the small St. John’s University campus in Queens, NY. Even with its recent renovations, the arena is cramped, outdated and inferior to the facilities of other powerhouse programs around the country. Though it is flawed, the gym has a certain charm to it—the 5,600-seat arena is a basketball oasis dripping with hoops history. Back in the Big East’s hey-day of the ’80s and ’90s, New York City greats Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Ron Artest and head coach Lou Carnesecca made St. John’s one of the premier programs in the country.
Splitting their home games between Carnesecca Arena and Madison Square Garden, St. John’s often found itself at the center of the college basketball world thanks to epic rivalries with the likes of Georgetown and Syracuse. As of late, though, the product has been subpar, local interest has waned, and the the tributes to Jackson, Mullin and Carnesecca hanging in the rafters of Carnesecca Arena remind those who enter just how far the program has fallen.
Except for an Elite 8 run in 2000 and a first-round bump in 2011, St. John’s has failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Even worse, the program found itself riled in controversy throughout the late ’90s and ’00s due to rape accusations (later proved untrue), allegedly paying players, an ugly breakup with former head coach Mike Jarvis, and a self-imposed post-season ban. Once a hotbed for New York City’s top players, almost all of the recruits coming out of the boroughs went to school elsewhere leaving the program devoid of talent. The result was a razed program that, after years of setbacks and disappointments, is finally trending upward under fourth year head coach Steve Lavin. Thanks to great recruiting and resilience, the Red Storm has a chance to bring attention back to a depleted New York City college basketball scene and re-stake its claim as “New York’s team.”
When Lavin stepped away from the analyst’s desk and returned to the sideline as head coach of St. John’s in 2010, the program had a positive energy around it for the first time in a decade. Here was a coach—arguably the first coach at St. John’s since Lou Carnesecca—who understood the responsibility, patience and work it took to build and sustain a basketball program and national presence. Lavin was already familiar with the pressures that came with coaching a high-profile school in a huge media market after 12 years at UCLA. He knew how to recruit (at UCLA he hauled two number one recruiting classes and seven McDonald’s All-Americans). And, most importantly, he knew how to win (five Sweet 16 appearances in six seasons).
The St. John’s-Steve Lavin marriage got off to a fast start. Lavin led his first team to a 21-12 record, beating four top-10 teams and earning a Big Dance berth along the way. Lavin brought a buzz back to campus as the fans and students immediately gravitated to the coach, dubbing Carnesecca Arena “LAVINWOOD.” Lavin also lived up to his reputation as a great recruiter by bringing in a class that included future first-round pick Moe Harkless, and other blue chip players including forward Jakarr Sampson, guard D’Angelo Harrison, big man Norvel Pelle, forward Amir Garrett and guard/forward Sir’Dominic Pointer. The foundation was laid by Lavin in year one and a return to consistent winning seemed imminent.
But just as quick as the program took a step forward, it took two steps back. Top incoming recruits Garrett, Sampson and Pelle didn’t qualify academically. Lavin’s first recruit, forward Dwayne Polee transferred, and point guard Nurideen Lindsey transferred nine games into the regular season. The biggest blow was Lavin’s diagnosis of prostate cancer which caused him to miss almost all of the season. Future (and now former) Charlotte Bobcats head coach Mike Dunlap was left to take the reins of the youngest team in the country and with just six scholarship players available, the Red Storm stumbled to a 13-19 record.
Year three of the Steve Lavin experiment was another up and down affair. Once again, the Red Storm hauled in a top recruiting class that included re-committed Sampson, shot blocking extraordinaire Chris Obekpa, top JuCo forward Orlando Sanchez (who didn’t play due to eligibility issues), Texas A&M transfer point guard Jamal Branch (allowed to play in December), and Harvard transfer Max Hooper (who redshirted).
The team played well, winning five straight conference games in January, and climbed as high as third in the conference. Newcomer Obekpa exceeded expectations and became a shot-blocking machine while Sampson and Harrison formed a potent scoring combination with their dynamic skill sets. The Johnnies were peaking heading into the stretch run of their schedule and were in the conversation as an at-large Tournament team. The team was riding high, but soon enough, problems both on and off the court began to creep to the forefront.
Offensively, the Red Storm were a mess. Branch, who was supposed to solve the team’s point guard problem, joined the team late and battled a knee injury. With Branch ailing, point guard responsibilities fell to Harrison and Phil Greene IV—both of whom are talented scorers but unfit to log heavy minutes at the point. Without an attacking point guard to penetrate and find the open man, the team settled for a ridiculously high amount of mid- to long-range two-point field-goal attempts. The team was also woeful from the three-point line, finishing near the bottom of the nation in all three-point statistical categories.
Once February came around, the team began to spiral out of control. Lavin’s crew went 2-4 during the month and played themselves out of a chance to make the NCAA Tournament. After that disappointing stretch, the wheels fell completely off the wagon in March. Harrison, easily the team’s best offensive threat and the only guy who could get his own shot, was suspended for the rest of the season by Lavin due to behavioral problems. St. John’s lost its remaining regular-season games and capped off its season with an embarrassing fight during a blowout loss against Notre Dame. When it was all said and done, the Red Storm finished with a 17-16 record and a first-round NIT victory—hardly the results the team had in mind. Statistically, St. John’s finished 290th out of 347 teams in adjusted offensive rating, dead last in the Big East in free-throw percentage and in the bottom half of the conference in assists, points per game, three-pointers made per game, and field-goal percentage.
Despite the disappointing finish, the team did have its bright spots and a returning foundation to build off of heading into the offseason. Obekpa was a force defensively, leading the nation with 4 blocks per game, while fellow freshman Sampson was second on the team in scoring with 14.9 points per game and first in rebounding with 6.6 per game—good enough to earn Big East Rookie of the Year. Pointer stuffed the stat sheet and harassed the opposing teams top perimeter player, turning into one of the better two-way players in the Big East. Even with the suspension, Harrison averaged 17.8 points per game and was named Second-Team All-Conference.
Nearly all of last season’s roster is coming back for another run and even though the season ended disastrously, Lavin remains optimistic. “Up until D’Angelo was suspended…I was pleased with where we were,” says Lavin. “We had a vision when we came here three years ago and now we’re closer to that because we have the depth, balance, size, skill, quickness, seasoning, and now we’re ready to take the next step which is making the NCAA Tournament.” It may seem a bit silly for the coach to speak so glowingly about the program considering how disappointing the last two seasons have been but Lavin’s optimism is warranted–on paper this team has all the pieces to win the Big East and compete nationally.
After flirting with the NBA, super sophomore Jakarr Sampson returns and joins Obekpa, Greene, Pointer, Branch, and a fresh-off-suspension Harrison to form an experienced and talented core. “The way the team is built, you can’t load up on guys,” says Harrison. “Everybody’s progression is better…Anyone on the floor can burn you.” Due to transfers, eligibility issues, and injuries, Lavin has struggled with depth since day one. After three years of solid recruiting, he finally has the bodies to use a skillful 10-man rotation—an incredibly important facet considering the new rules put in play by the NCAA that will result in a ton of foul calls.
Leaving his native Africa to chase his dream of playing in the NBA, Opekba made a splash last season by leading the nation in blocks but it wasn’t enough for the big man. “[Winning Defensive Player of the Year] was the goal last year but I didn’t get it,” says Opekba. “I was mad at myself but it was motivation for me to come back and get it. That’s what I’m looking forward to this year. [That] and to watch the team progress and go a lot further than last year.” If Opekba has any semblance of an offensive game this season, he will emerge as a force for the Johnnies on both ends of the court.
Pointer has one of the more well-rounded games in the nation, and is starting to gain national attention because of it. His stats won’t blow you away (he averaged 6.9 points, 5.5 boards, 2.8 assists, and 1.4 steals last season) but with a combination of strength, size, athleticism and basketball IQ, the 6-5 Pointer will again impact every game in some capacity. “He’s one of those guys who will be in for 10 minutes and have 10 points, 8 blocks, 4 rebounds, call a timeout, get a travel called on him, and dunk on somebody,” says Harrison. “He’s going to have an impact every game. [He is one of the] leaders on this team.”
After winning Big East Freshman of the Year, 6-8 forward Sampson rightfully flirted with the NBA Draft. Last season, the silky smooth forward flashed a sick mid-range game and proved himself as a willing rebounder, but ultimately chose to return to St. John’s to improve his game, get stronger, and carry his team to the next level. “I felt like I wasn’t satisfied with where I was at,” says an excited Sampson. “I felt like I could use another year to get better and improve on the things I wasn’t good at last year like my three-point shot, perimeter game and ball-handling. I felt like we weren’t a full team last year…it didn’t feel right leaving.”
Realizing the team’s flaws, the coaching staff did a tremendous job in filling the holes that held the Red Storm back last season. To help the terrible three-point shooting, Lavin brought in long-range specialist Max Hooper from Harvard. Hooper only has one job this season—hit as many threes as humanly possible and if the 10 three-pointers he hit in a game during the team’s European tour over the summer are any indication, that should not be a problem. “He’s going to add a lot to this team,” says Sampson. “It’s no secret that we struggled with the three-point shot last year and he’s going to open up a lot for us this year. Once people start to realize he’s the real deal and can really shoot the ball, a lot of attention is going to be taken off of myself and D’Angelo and put on him.”
While Hooper’s teammates and coaches raved about his ability to shoot the three at media day, the reality is Hooper saw almost no playing time his freshman year at Harvard. At 6-6 and with his supposed ability to stretch the floor, Hooper has the potential to solve a lot of the problems this team had from beyond the arc last season. The verdict is still out as to whether Hooper can compete on a higher level of competition and with St. John’s counting on him to be their primary deep threat, the pressure is on.
Outside of Obekpa, who was a non-factor offensively, the Red Storm were paper thin up front. To add depth and skill, the Red Storm welcome in 6-9 power forward Sanchez with open arms. The Dominican Republic native was supposed to play last season but after suiting up for the Dominican’s national team under Coach Calipari, the NCAA called his amateur eligibility into question and declared him ineligible for the season. Fortunately for the 24-year-old Sanchez and the Red Storm, the big man was cleared late last season and will add scoring and rebounding up front. Sanchez was widely regarded as one of the top JuCo transfers two years ago and he and Obekpa will form a formidable duo down low.
“I like playing off of Orlando,” says Obekpa. “He knows what I can do and I know what he can do. It’s like a good sparring partner for me, we push each other every day in practice. By the time we start the season we won’t be surprised by the competition, we’ll be used to it.” Along with Sanchez, 6-9 forward, God’s Gift Achiuwa returns after redshirting last season to provide more depth.
Easily the biggest addition to St. John’s roster is 6-4 freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan. Despite all the talent Lavin as hauled since he landed in Queens, the point guard position has been this program’s achilles heel under his tenure. It doesn’t matter how many good players a coach puts on the court, without a capable floor general the team will struggle—just look at last year’s Kentucky team. Jordan, who was heralded as one of the top recruits in the nation, is long, explosive, and could be the missing piece that takes this team from the middle-of-the-pack to the Top 25.
Jordan will make an impact on both sides of the floor from day one and he is already being discussed as one of the top freshmen Lavin has ever coached. “He’s a perfect complement to our personnel and to our style of play,” says Lavin. “He can influence the game on both ends of the floor, he’s 6-4 with a long wingspan and can disrupt a player with his defensive prowess as well as offensively as a shot and playmaker. He’s going to have an opportunity to elevate everything we’re doing. He’s in the handful of the best freshmen I’ve coached. Time will tell over the season how quickly he develops…but for this stage in my coaching career, he’d be in the handful of the best I’ve coached.”
The hype machine around the Philly native is firing on all cylinders and with St. John’s making him unavailable for interviews until December, the intrigue only grows.
With fresh faces and returning players all primed to contribute, this season rides on the shoulders of Harrison. The junior is easily one of the top scorers in the country but with last year’s suspension still fresh in everyone’s memory, he will be under a microscope all season long. During the offseason, Harrison returned home to his native Texas to train and receive counseling from from former NBA point guard, John Lucas, who has built a reputation as a mentor to troubled athletes. The training and anger management put Harrison in a good place both physically and mentally. When the lights are on and he hits a cold streak or St. John’s goes on a skid, whether or not Harrison has actually learned from his past will reveal itself.
“He’s in a really good place but he knows it has to be sustained,” says Lavin. “It doesn’t mean he’s not going to have a day or a game where he’s less than perfect, we get that. But he’s in a good place and we’re proud of the way he came back. He wanted to come back and he came back and earned his way back on to the team.”
Harrison must keep composure in order for this team to reach its potential and with the talent around him this season, he has the chance to lead the Big East in scoring and have a really special year for the Red Storm.
In Sampson, Harrison, Jordan, Pointer and Opekba, Lavin has five former blue chip recruits who will often find themselves on the court together at the same time at his disposal. That level of talent cannot be matched by any of the other teams in the new Big East. The accolades for this crew are already piling up—Sampson was named Second-Team All-Conference, Harrison a First-Team selection, Opekba an Honorable Mention, and Jordan has been named Preseason Big East Rookie of the Year. While the Big East lost many of its stalwarts, newcomers Xavier, Creighton and Butler are no strangers to success. Adding those programs to go along with Georgetown, Villanova and Marquette and the Big East will still be one of the more competitive conferences in the country. Outside of matchups with Wisconsin and Syracuse, the Red Storm’s non-conference schedule is very weak which should help them find their groove heading into Big East play.
Expectations are growing, the talent level is as high as its ever been, and entering year four of Lavin’s regime the pressure to win now is undeniable—exactly what Lavin and the Red Storm want. “At the end of the day, that’s why we lace ‘em up,” says Lavin. “As a coach and an athlete that comes to St. John’s, you have the chance to do something special like we have in the past. This group has been working hard so that we’ll have something special in March.”