Cunniff’s Corner: No September to Remember for Lavin

At this time last year, men’s basketball head coach Steve Lavin was riding high.

Consensus Top-100 recruits Maurice Harkless and Jakarr Sampson committed to play for the Red Storm last September and prospects were bright for the upcoming season.

This September, on the other hand, couldn’t have gone more wrong.

Earlier this month, three members of their nationally-ranked recruiting class was declared academically ineligible for the first semester of the 2011/12 school year. Forward Amir Garrett and center Norvel Pelle, along with Sampson, reportedly had summer school grades flagged by the NCAA, meaning that they can’t suit up for the Red Storm until December at the earliest.

Suddenly, the outlook for St. John’s upcoming season has gone from cautiously optimistic to grim. They only had 11 scholarship players to begin with, two less than the 13 that Division I basketball teams are allowed. Now they only have eight players eligible for the fall semester, one of whom is a former walk-on.

Sampson has already jumped ship, decommitting from St. John’s and reopening his recruitment. Pelle and Garrett are, for now, still committed to playing for the Red Storm, if and when they become eligible.

The Johnnies were never going to be a big team physically, but the loss of the six-foot-ten Pelle, one of only two post players in the class, means that they are now tiny. Last year’s team, which sometimes featured the six-foot-seven Justin Brownlee as a lone post presence, would look like giants compared to this year’s team.

It’s tough to blame Lavin for bringing in players who would struggle to qualify. He was faced with a Herculean task of replacing 10 seniors with players who would have to compete in the Big East right away. Because of the sheer number of players that he had to bring in to be competitive this year, Lavin and his staff were bound to bring in players who would struggle to qualify.

When you’re building an ark, you can’t be picky about who decides to come aboard.

In the background of this whole ordeal, the Big East conference itself is in a state of flux. Syracuse and Pittsburgh have already left for the ACC, and Connecticut and Rutgers are rumored to have one foot out the door as well. St. John’s and other non-Big East football schools are left in limbo, having no idea what their conference will look like or if there will even be a Big East at this time next year.

The Big East conference has undoubtedly been one of the strongest recruiting pitches in Lavin’s arsenal. He could tell recruits that if they came to St. John’s they’d go toe-to-toe against the best players in the country on national television night in and night out. Now, the conference that St. John’s is in is a liability as a recruiting pitch rather than an asset.

It is in this atmosphere that Lavin lost his first high-profile recruiting battle. Despite pulling out all the stops, including bringing Baron Davis to Jamaica, St. Anthony’s star Kyle Anderson chose Hollywood over Lavinwood and picked UCLA over St. John’s and a host of other East Coast schools.

Did the news of Pelle, Samson and Garrett’s eligibility affect his decision? What about the rumors of the Big East’s impending collapse? Anderson didn’t say, but it’s safe to say that neither of those factors helped.

This has been the most turbulent time of Lavin’s short tenure at St. John’s.

But as bad as things have been with the basketball program, all of that pales in comparison to what’s going on in his personal life. Last week, he revealed that he has to undergo either surgery or radiation to treat his prostate cancer.

October will be much kinder to Lavin and the rest of the men’s basketball program. Yes, the question marks about the Big East and the ineligible players will remain. And yes, Lavin will still be undergoing cancer treatment. But at least they’ll get to return to the court.

When practice begins on Oct. 14, Lavin and his staff will worry about who is on the team rather than who isn’t. The Big East is still intact for the 2011/12 season, and it will still be the toughest conference in the country. With such a slim roster, every ounce of energy will have to be spent on getting ready for the season.

Even with all the unfortunate things that have happened this month, the outlook for St. John’s men’s basketball hasn’t been brighter since Metta World Peace was a student-athlete. The newcomers that are eligible still constitute one of the best incoming classes in the country, and last year’s NCAA tournament run went a long way towards restoring the luster to the St. John’s brand.

September has been silly season for both the St. John’s team as a program and the Big East as a conference. October, however, is basketball season.