By Jason Schott – BrooklynFans.com Reporter / Assignment Editor - @JESchott19
St. John’s Head Coach Steve Lavin sees how far his three returning seniors, D’Angelo Harrison, Phil Greene IV and Sir’Dominic Pointer have come, and he sees the importance they have put on this season, hoping their time here culminates in an NCAA Tournament berth.
Lavin spoke at Big East Media Day at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, where it was revealed the Red Storm were chosen third in the conference’s pre-season poll. In addition to Harrison, Greene, and Pointer, Jamal Branch and Khadim Ndiaye are the other two seniors on the roster. St. John’s has made the NIT the past two seasons.
JaKarr Sampson would have been another returning senior, but he left after last season for the NBA. Moe Harkless also entered with this group, but he left after his freshman year and is now entering his third season in the NBA with the Orlando Magic.
Lavin talked about his journey with St. John’s starting in his first year in 2010-11 and what Harrison, Greene, Pointer, Sampson, and Harkless faced when they arrived. “We made the NCAA Tournament, and then the entire team leaves, not one returner. In my experience, that’s unprecedented, as an assistant, as a head coach, as a broadcaster, then return to head coach where there’s not one returning player. So, after one season, keep in mind, not only did they come here on blind faith because they had opportunities to go to schools that were winning on a regular basis, and then when they arrive, they find out I have cancer and they don’t have their head coach in their first year – they win 13 games. In their second year, they come back, but we have no one on the roster with more than one year experience, and they win 17 games. Then, they come back for their junior year and we don’t have anybody on the roster with more than two years experience and they win 20 games.
“Now, you have a group that has 98 games under their belt of Division 1 college basketball experience, if you count the exhibition 102 games, and that makes up our five seniors, which is dramatically different from when they arrived at the program and there was not a player with one game of college experience.
“I think it’s a rather, remarkable unique story, and that’s why expectations are high. We want to see these kids finish in the appropriate manner,” said Lavin.
He continued on his Big 3, “We know, in our objective from the outset was to return St. John’s into a consistent winner but that takes time, there’s no magic wand, there’s no light switch. We went from 13 wins when they were freshmen, 17 wins as sophomores, now 20 as juniors, and now in a position to do something special. I couldn’t be prouder of this group because, not only have they gradually demonstrated an immeasurable progress, but they’re all going to get their degrees in December, a semester ahead of time, in three and a half years and they represent our school, the league and college basketball, in a first-class manner.”
Lavin said of the expectations for Harrison, “D’Angelo is a great story from start to finish at St. John’s, and I couldn’t be prouder of a player that has transformed in so many respects – his maturity, his leadership, he’s gonna graduate a semester ahead of time, in three-and-a-half years, and he’s gonna go down as one of the leading scorers not only in St. John’s history, but in Big East history. And, if I hadn’t suspended him, he probably would have ended up being the leading scorer in the history of our school, but I also believe, and I think he would agree, that the experience of having basketball taken away from him forged a different perspective and has positioned him to now finish his career the way he deserves.”
Rysheed Jordan, their highly-touted point guard from Philadelphia, will be entering his sophomore year. Lavin said of the expectations for Jordan entering this season, “With Rysheed, we want to see him continue to develop and mature into the leader and the point guard that we know he’s capable of being and we saw in stretches last year and we won 10 of 13 Big East games coming down the stretch. In the second half of the season in league, Villanova was 8-1 and we were 7-2, and Rysheed was instrumental in that run of winning 10 of 13 conference games. He received four out of five Big East Rookie of the Week awards. So, there’s no doubt, when Rysheed is playing well, he’s the one that makes this whole team purr, he’s the key, the central nervous system, so to speak, of our team.”
On if it would be a failure if they miss the NCAA Tournament this season, Lavin said, “I don’t even look at it more as a failure. It’s just that we want to be great, we want to be special. We want this group to be able to leave a footprint behind that they can be proud of, to have their own legacy, their own chapter in this storied program, to have an opportunity to make the Tournament and play our best basketball in March so we can be in a position to make a run.”
Lavin spoke of the perception that the Big East is not as strong as it once was, and he said, “I think it’s dangerous, I understand in the media we have to do it, I did it for seven years, where they say the sky is falling for the Big 12 or the Southeastern Conference is really down!, let’s talk about it, and they come up with some statistical information that didn’t give the broader context and so, I think people know the Big East is going to have eight teams vying for NCAA Tournament births and, if five or six of those teams make it, then that’s 50 or 60 percent of your league, and if two or three of those five make it to the second weekend of play, or if someone punches their way to the Final Four, it shows you have a very strong, healthy league.”
Comparing the Big East this season to last year, Lavin said, “I think the biggest difference from last year to this year is the depth of this conference, the quality of depth. If you look at the recruiting, that’s a good indication of the health of the league. When the respective schools are able to address the best players in the country, it means that people are paying attention to the coaching, the tradition, the rivalries, the spotlight that’s on this conference.”
On scheduling old Big East rival Syracuse on their schedule and the non-conference schedule, Lavin said, “It’s a fine line, it’s like, you know, alchemy, tinkering with the test tubes there in terms of finding that right mix of opponents in the non-conference that will challenge your team, create some resistance, but also have some games on your schedule that you know you can win because you have to build your team’s confidence and you’ve got first-year players that need to get their feet wet and develop without being in the pressure cooker every moment they’re on the floor. I think everyone in the conference is striving for a mix of high-level games against power conference opponents, but also not over-scheduling because we sometimes can undermine our own objectives by beating each other up in the league and then having faced such tough opponents in the non-conference, that you find yourself on the wrong side of the fence.
“We are mindful. We’re playing Duke, Syracuse, Gonzaga, Minnesota, Georgia, St. Mary’s, Long Beach, you know, even those mid-major teams will be vying for NCAA Tournament births when you look at our schedule and sometimes those games can turn out to be pivotal in terms of getting into the Tournament or being on the other side of the fence,” said Lavin.