Lavin introducing fresh attitude to Big East recruiting race

St. John’s used to be the pushover of Big East basketball recruiting. Not anymore.

It used to be that the Johnnies were a good program that deserved better, getting solid players with reputations for working hard and being good character guys off the court. This was said usually by the coaches who cherry-picked the top recruits out of the Red Storm’s backyard while St. John’s could do nothing more than stand idle and hope that its recruiting pitch—a chance to revive the program while playing at the World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden—could outweigh the others.  

But in his first recruiting season with the Red Storm, men’s basketball coach Steve Lavin changed all that, prying Los Angeles’ Dwayne Polee Jr. away from the West Coast, where he was widely regarded as the area’s top college prospect, and nipped Forest Hills’ Maurice Harkless, a small forward who initially committed to Connecticut. Polee will join the Johnnies on the court for the upcoming 2010-11 season and Harkless will follow next season, when the team will have nine other freshmen, as part of what Lavin calls his “Noah’s Ark.”

It seemed like St. John’s primed for something big. The program had been building to this crescendo all summer, as Ron Artest’s Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA title and Anthony Mason Jr. took his talents to South Beach in joining the trio of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade.

Finally, in late August, the current Red Storm squad received recognition when the conference’s coaches made their preseason rankings. Louisville’s Rick Pitino gave the Johnnies his first-place vote. “Nine seniors,” he said in a text message to ESPN. “Everyone

but Pitt and Villanova lost key players.”

But the big boom came just before classes started on the Queens campus, with Harkless announcing his commitment to the Johnnies right in front of the Garden, just as Amar’e Stoudemire did when he agreed to join the Knicks in their rebuilding efforts in July. When the rebuilding projects are done, neither will probably be the main star of either team, but the defiance with which they

chose New York speaks for the swagger both clubs are bringing back to basketball.

Which is why Lavin benefited more from the move than Harkless. The only way St. John’s basketball could revive the way New York expects it to is to have a guy who embodies tenacity leading the way—a guy who doesn’t take no for an answer and does whatever it takes to bring in the guys he targets.

Lavin has done that not once, but twice thus far, and he’s done so right in the face of UConn, one of the Big East’s perrenial powerhouses, by luring one of their former committed players. When he was hired, Lavin talked a big game of what he projected for his program and, at least on paper, he’s delivered.

Lavin will not let St. John’s stand idle while rival teams have their way with the City’s talent anymore. Norm Roberts couldn’t do that, and from the looks of it, Steve Lavin relishes in defending his turf. And judging from last Tuesday’s announcement, it looks like Harkless is the kind of guy who does too, and those are the kinds of players you can expect Lavin to target and bring into the school.

This is not to say this attitude hasn’t ruffled some feathers. At Harkless’ introductory press conference, his advisor, Nate Blue, said the recruit received a text message from a rival Big East coach saying, “if Moe committed to St. John’s he would be double and triple-teamed on a team of nobodies.”

He says that because folks, the times they are a-changin,’ and the balance of power in the Big East is shifting. He says that because he can feel it. And he’s scared.

And he should be, because Blue had this to add: “There’s going to be a lot of help coming to St. John’s in the next few weeks. I won’t tip my hat, but there’s more coming soon.”

If that is true, the rest of the conference had better take notice.