Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
New coach hopes to bring Red Storm back to prominence.
By Ken Davis
The fall signing period in college basketball gives us a glimpse into the future.
Our first conclusion: Kentucky isn’t going away any time soon. No big surprise there. According to the ESPN.com and the Rivals.com rankings, it’s the third straight year that John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats have delivered the top recruiting class in the nation.
Second conclusion: Steve Lavin is serious about turning things around at St. John’s. That’s not really a surprise either. But the enormous statement Lavin has made with his first recruiting class as coach of the Red Storm is something to take notice of.
It makes little difference which recruiting rankings you prefer. Rivals has Lavin’s class ranked No. 2 in the nation. The ESPN list puts St. John’s at No. 3, behind Kentucky and Duke. Either way, that’s fast company. Either way, that’s making a quick impression and reeling in some big catches. And St. John’s hasn’t been able to do that in a long, long time.
Lavin replaced Norm Roberts at St. John’s. Roberts is a good coach, a high quality man, a person who was respected throughout the Big East, and someone who ran a clean program. It’s easy to feel sorry for Roberts because he had built his program and geared it for this season. Lavin inherits 10 seniors, giving the Red Storm one of the most experienced teams in the nation. St. John’s could be headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002. If that happens, Roberts deserves some credit.
Roberts was shown the door because he couldn’t recruit to the expectations of St. John’s administrators. Even though he cleaned up a program that had been dragged through the gutter by Mike Jarvis, Roberts didn’t want to do the things that were necessary to win over the grassroots program in the New York City area. So some of the most talented players in the nation went elsewhere.
Enter Lavin, the former UCLA coach who spent the past seven years at ESPN as an analyst. The first thing he did was hire a coaching staff that had the contacts and the experience in the metropolitan New York area. Lavin brags constantly about his assistants — Mike Dunlap, Tony Chiles and Rico Hines — and he hired Moe Hicks as director of operations and Derrick Wrobel as special assistant to the head coach.
“It’s like a school principal coming in and the first thing is hiring some really good teachers,” Lavin said this summer as the recruiting class was starting to take shape. “They will implement the curriculum and then go out and recruit students to come to your school. Then it’s a matter of delivering, so that those kids have a good experience.”
But the principal wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty too. In a 36-hour period in October, Lavin traveled from New York to Houston to Oklahoma City to Las Vegas to Los Angeles and back to New York, putting together the pieces of what he calls “an historic class” for the Red Storm.
Lavin says it will be an “arduous task” to get St. John’s back to position of being competitive nationally every season. He knows it begins with the potential recruiting base of New York and New Jersey, but he has no intention of drawing boundaries.
“You also have to have the ability to recruit nationally and overseas to sustain success,” Lavin said. “Programs like UConn and Syracuse have been able to do that. We want to use the same blueprint.”
Remember the names Norvel Pelle, D’Angelo Harrison, Jakarr Sampson, Maurice Harkless, Dominique Pointer and Nurideen Lindsey. They are the six pioneers who have signed with St. John’s and formed this inaugural recruiting class for Lavin. St. John’s has more scholarships available and Lavin wants an even bigger class.
But for now, just be aware of the way he has started. It’s very impressive.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
The results of early season games make it difficult to weigh one performance against another. But we know an impressive line when we see it. Kansas junior Markieff Morris opened the season with 14 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks as the Jayhawks crushed Longwood University 113–75. By all accounts, this line was legitimate and Markieff didn’t get credit for anything accomplished by his twin brother Marcus. (It can be confusing when they are on the floor at the same time.) Kansas coach Bill Self called it a “pretty good statistical game, especially when you play only 26 minutes.” Agreed.
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
Two highly touted rookies, neighbors on Tobacco Road, made impressive debuts last week. So we are going to split the award and honor both Harrison Barnes of North Carolina and Kyrie Irving of Duke. Barnes, the first freshman ever named to the Associated Press preseason All-America team, had 14 points (6-for-12 from the field), four rebounds, two assists and one block in 27 minutes against Lipscomb. Irving had 17 points, four rebounds, nine assists, two steals and one block in 25 minutes against Princeton. Irving is the first freshman to start the season at point guard for Duke since Jason Williams in 1999.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Monday, Nov. 15
Valparaiso at Kansas
The Jayhawks had plenty of offense in their opening victory over Longwood. Now coach Bill Self would like to see some more D from his squad.
Tuesday, Nov. 16
Virginia Tech at Kansas State
Two ranked teams. Malcolm Delaney for the Hokies. Jacob Pullen for K-State. It’s not even Thanksgiving yet.
Ohio State at Florida
Here’s a good chance to check out Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger. Billy Donovan has some experienced Gators who are ready to rule the SEC again.
Thursday, Nov. 18
Pittsburgh vs. Maryland; Illinois vs. Texas
Two great semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic Benefiting Coaches Vs. Cancer, from Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Friday, Nov. 19
Coaches vs. Cancer championship game
Prediction: Pitt and Illinois will win Thursday’s games and meet for the title.
Saturday, Nov. 20
Wisconsin at UNLV
Great contrast in styles between Bo Ryan’s Badgers and Lon Kruger’s Runnin’ Rebels.
Sunday, Nov. 21
Puerto Rico Tip-Off championship
Play begins Thursday with Davidson, West Virginia, Nebraska, Vanderbilt, Hofstra, North Carolina, Western Kentucky and Minnesota.
THEY SAID IT:
“I don't know how many teams are going to be able to play with Duke. There might be 10 teams in the country that can handle all the things that they throw at you. So, good luck to those guys, because Duke's pretty good.” — Princeton coach Sydney Johnson, after his team lost to the Blue Devils 97-60.
“It was complete breakdown after complete breakdown defensively. Those are things we're going to have to grow up with and overcome.” — Kansas State coach Frank Martin, after the No. 3 Wildcats were sluggish in a 75-61 opening victory over James Madison.
“I think we’re the best team that can shoot threes, that’s what coach said, in the country.” — Kentucky freshman Doron Lamb (20 points) after the Wildcats made 13-of-26 3-pointers in an 88-65 victory over East Tennessee State.
“I think people are going to be surprised. They’re a good passing team with a lot of shooting weapons. I didn’t know much about them before this game. They have so many new faces.” — Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell after losing to UConn, his alma mater, 79-52 in the season opener for both teams.
• Maryland sophomore Jordan Williams had 20 points and 11 rebounds Sunday as the Terps (3-0) defeated Maine 89-59. Williams now has five straight double-double performances, dating back to the NCAA Tournament last season. Next up for Maryland and Williams: Big East-favorite Pittsburgh on Thursday at Madison Square Garden in the semifinal round of the 2K Sports Classic Benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer.
• Freshman big man Enes Kanter can continue to practice with Kentucky while the school appeals an NCAA ruling Thursday declaring him permanently ineligible. The ruling is based on the NCAA discovery that Kanter received more than the necessary benefits while playing for a club team in Turkey two years ago.
• Baylor guard LaceDarius Dunn will not make his season debut until Nov. 22 against Lipscomb. The Bears’ leading scorer last season was suspended from the first three games of the season after he was arrested last month and accused of breaking his girlfriend’s jaw in a domestic dispute. The woman has asked that all charges be dropped. The school said the three-game suspension is for “a team rules violation.”
• Villanova is playing without freshman forward JayVaughn Pinkston, charged last week with two counts of simple assault and harassment after a weekend altercation. The Wildcats will hold him out of games until a university review is complete. Pinkston can practice but he wasn’t on the bench for the opener against Bucknell.
• Connecticut assistant coach Kevin Ollie suffered an eye injury in practice last week and missed the Huskies’ opener against Stony Brook Friday night. Ollie likely won’t be able to make the trip to Hawaii later this week when they head to the Maui Invitational. Ollie, the 13-year NBA veteran who played under Jim Calhoun at UConn, was doing stretching exercises with the players when an elastic band slipped off his foot and struck him in the right eye. Doctors prescribed bed rest and they are concerned about pressure issues in the cabin of an airplane. In response to an e-mail message, Ollie said, “God always has a purpose for our storms. The eye doctor said I will regain my full range of vision over time!”
• Duke by the numbers: Coach Mike Krzyzewski is now four victories shy of 800 wins at Duke. His record in home openers at Duke is 30-1. With their victory over Princeton at Cameron Indoor Stadium the Blue Devils have won 78 consecutive home games and non-conference opponents and 43 consecutive against unranked opponents.
• To the family and friends of Joe Soltys, my deepest condolences. Joe, who was sports information director at UConn from 1959 to 1984, died Thursday at age 89. Joe was an old school SID; he worked with a typewriter and a telecopier. He enjoyed people and loved UConn sports. His son, Mike, is vice president for communications at ESPN and another friend of sports journalists everywhere. Joe will be dearly missed.
Nice touch of the week, as reported by the Los Angeles Times: “In memory of legendary former basketball coach John Wooden, UCLA will keep empty the seat where the “Wizard of Westwood” regularly sat up until last season. Wooden, who died June 4 at age 99, almost never missed a game at Pauley Pavilion, always sitting in section 103B, Row 2, Seat 1.”
Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher
(http://www.whitmanvaultbooks.com/) and autographed copies are available at Ken's web page (http://kendavis55.wordpress.com/).