Cunniff’s Corner: Upcoming season will test Johnnies’ bond

Oct. 14’s Red Storm Tip-Off marked the beginning of the season for a historically young St. John’s men’s basketball team.

Depending on whom you ask, expectations are all over the place for the young Red Storm. Some are confident that the team’s talent will carry it to great heights, while others cite their lack of depth and complete lack of experience as obstacles that cannot be overcome in 2011-12

Count the players in the first camp.

Shortly after leaving the floor during the Tip-Off, sophomore guard Nurideen Lindsey talked about the “huge goal” ahead of the young team.

When asked by a reporter what that goal was, he looked him in the eye and said, “Winning a National Championship.”

I smiled to myself when I heard that bold statement. Lindsey did not. He really believes that this St. John’s team, who currently only has eight players and only one returning scholarship player, can contend for college basketball’s highest honors.

I’m going to go out on a limb and make this prediction: St. John’s is not going to win a National Championship this year. To be honest, they probably won’t even make the NCAA Tournament. They’re too young, too small and too inexperienced to keep up in the Big East night after night.

But I love the confidence, bordering on arrogance, that players like Lindsey and freshman shooting guard D’Angelo Harrison show. That confidence is why they bought in to head coach Steve Lavin’s vision of returning New York City’s team to national prominence. That’s why they chose St. John’s over more established programs, even though the Red Storm were coming off a 13th place Big East finish when they committed.

When they committed, Lavin was still an unknown quantity, new to the East Coast and seven years out of coaching. St. John’s was an afterthought in the Big East, having not made the NCAA tournament for eight consecutive seasons.

Others might have seen uncertainty and gone to established powerhouses like Connecticut, Kansas, Kentucky or West Virginia. Leave it to somebody else to rebuild St. John’s reputation. Nobody would have blamed them.

But the six players in Lavin’s first recruiting class saw opportunity—for immediate playing time and for future glory. They believed that they could be the pioneers that restored St. John’s to its place in college basketball’s upper echelon.

There’s a certain amount of self-confidence that they needed to make the risky move of coming to St. John’s. That self-confidence is why they really think that a deep NCAA Tournament run isn’t above them this year. And with the deck stacked against them, they’ll need all the confidence they can muster when they go toe-to-toe with players like UConn’s Jeremy Lamb, Notre Dame’s Tim Abromaitis and Syracuse’s Scoop Jardine on a nightly basis.

With everything that has gone on between signing day and now, these eight players have bonded in a short time. They’ve made numerous references to being a family and express complete faith in their coaching staff.

The bonds that they’ve forged as well as their self-confidence will sustain them when they face adversity. And they will face adversity. Even last year’s team, with a full complement of scholarship players and a wealth of experience, went through rough patches.  It’s easy to forget now, but before their season-defining win over then-No. 3 Duke last season, the Johnnies had lost five of their last six conference games.

This year’s team will have at least one stretch like that. That’s when we’ll see what they are really made of. It’s easy to boast about being a family when they haven’t played a game. It will be considerably harder in February if they’re propping up the rest of the Big East in the conference standings.

They’re going to take their lumps this season. There’s a reason why the most experienced teams usually fare the best in conference play. Big East play is a different animal than anything these players have gone up against before. Junior point guard Malik Stith, the lone player who saw any minutes last season, said that the intensity of the Big East is impossible to know until you’ve actually been a part of it. Obviously, nobody except him has.

If in March they are still expressing the same faith in each other and their coaching staff that they are now, we’ll know that this group is special. If nothing else, it’s going to be a fun ride.