The 00’s were a decade of down for the St. John’s basketball program. After capturing the Big East tournament title in March of 2000, the team began a slow slide downhill that went off a cliff in 2003, the season following an NIT Championship. A story circulated that then-head coach Mike Jarvis, or more accurately, a member of his staff, paid a player, and as a result, Jarvis resigned and that NIT Championship and 43 wins were forfeited, and the program hit rock bottom with a dreadful 6-21 season. Norm Roberts was hired to restore the program to its former glories, but despite squeaking out a couple of winning records (both times one game over .500), the Red Storm failed to post a winning conference record under Roberts who was fired after last season’s 17-16 campaign ended with a first-round NIT loss. Into the breach steps Steve Lavin, formerly the head coach of UCLA, and most recently a color commentator with ESPN. Lavin was fired from UCLA after his seventh season, his first losing season in Westwood which came on the heels of six previous NCAA tournament appearances, five Sweet Sixteen appearances (including one trip to the Elite Eight) and one conference championship, a successful string in most college basketball towns. But UCLA fans have higher expectations than most, and many of them will tell you that despite Lavin’s mostly successful tenure there, his teams underachieved. After seven seasons away from the bench, he’ll have his chance to prove himself all over again in New York, another town with plenty of expectations.

Lavin, for his part, has embraced the expectations. He has brought excitement to the program and has already begun flashing his recruiting prowess, snagging a commitment from Dwayne Polee out of Westchester High in the Los Angeles area for this year’s class and adding a relatively unknown Tucson guard Michael Perez as well this week. Lavin still has some feelers out there for other recruits for this year’s class, namely Remi Barry, but the bulk of this year’s roster will be made up of returning players, including nine seniors; Anthony Mason Jr. is the only serious contributor who has moved on, although would-be sophomore swing Omari Lawrence has decided to transfer to Kansas State.

Of the nine seniors, D.J. Kennedy is the team’s leading returning scorer and rebounder (15ppg, 6rpg), a versatile and exciting athlete who will likely once again be the team’s main scoring threat. He can score off penetration or from range, he can handle the ball in the open floor and is a terrific defender, among other talents. Malik Boothe started all but one game last season at the point for the Johnnies, and he’ll be the man there again. He is not a good shooter by any means and not much of a scoring threat, but can facilitate the offense and defend like a mad man. His backcourt mate will likely be Paris Horne, who also started 32 of the Red Storm’s 33 games last season. He is an athletic guard with a good three-point stroke, who for some reason is a terrible free throw shooter. Pushing Horne for a starting spot will be Dwight Hardy, a scoring guard who came to St. John’s last season as a JuCo transfer, and between the two of them, the off-guard spot is covered.

Up front, continuing with the senior theme, Justin Burrell and Sean Evans are both experienced big bodies, each checking in a 6’8. Evans is a terrific rebounder, especially on the offensive glass, and is a good finisher inside. Burrell has a more skilled offensive game, with the ability to put the ball on the floor a bit, and is more of an above-the-rim player than Evans. A starting lineup of the guards with Kennedy, Burrell and Evans would be an athletic and exciting quintet. Another senior option up front is 6’10 center Dele Coker, a defensive post player with a severely limited offensive game who nonetheless will give Lavin a big body to throw out there against more physical opponents. Then there's 6'7 Justin Brownlee, a big body who rebounds well, can defend the post, and has a bit of a face-up game. He shot too many threes (or at the very least, made too few of the ones he did try) as a junior, the JuCo transfer's first at St. John's, but he’s got some upside on the offensive end. Rounding out the group of seniors is Rob Thomas, a good story who has failed to make much of an impact on the court, and of whom little is expected in his senior season.

Despite the senior-laden roster, there are a couple returning underclassmen with a shot at playing time, foremost among them sophomore point guard Malik Stith, who will again back up the point position. He is very similar to Boothe in that he is a bad shooter whose main contributions are facilitating the offense and defending. And there is also Quincy Roberts, an off-guard who red-shirted last season due to ongoing issues following a concussion. Roberts did get some minutes, even a few starts, in his freshman year at the point, mainly due to injuries, but it remains to be seen what role he will play going forward.

Then there are the new freshmen. Polee is a long and athletic wing who is an amazing player above the rim. Unfortunately, his basketball skills have yet to catch up to his runaway athleticism, and with plenty of similar players ahead of him in the frontcourt rotation, his minutes figure to be limited. Perez is a scoring guard who can play both guard positions, but given that he was previously looking at limited scholarship opportunities, he may be a reach for the Big East level. However, if he can consistently knock down open jumpers, he could play a role for a Red Storm team that lacks a pure shooter.

This St. John’s team has plenty of talent and athleticism, but thus far they have been unable to put it all together. If there was ever a team that needed some coaching up, this is that team, which presents an interesting dilemma given Lavin’s history with his teams arguably underachieving. But given that Lavin, despite being away from the coaching profession, has still spent plenty of time around the game, there is a possibility that his coaching style and effectiveness will have matured. Throw in the fact that he has put together a staff with well-respected teachers like Mike Dunlap and Tony Chiles (along with Rico Hines, a former assistant with the Golden State Warriors and also Lavin’s first UCLA recruit), and the Lavin of old may not be the same Lavin we see these days. There is enough talent on this Red Storm roster to compete for an NCAA tournament bid (especially in a year when the Big East may not be as strong as it has been the last couple of years), but they’ll need to show improvement and maturity to get there. Given a roster with eight seniors, there’s plenty of reason to believe maturity won’t be an issue.

 


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