In his first season at St. John's, Steve Lavin inherited a team with 10 seniors and took it on a thrill ride to the NCAA Tournament, knocking off several Top 10 teams along the way. The ride this season promises to be a lot bumpier because of inexperience, lack of depth and the health issues Lavin faces while recovering from successful prostate surgery.
All of those factors contributed to St. John's being ranked 12th in the preseason Big East coaches poll announced Wednesday in Manhattan. Lavin did not attend the media day event, but assistant coach Mike Dunlap said the coach has been in constant contact with his staff.
There is no timetable for Lavin's return, but Dunlap said, "I know he'll be around soon. I can tell by his energy level increasing. We are having DVDs brought to his apartment because we tape all our practices. In the afternoon, he'll give me instructions on the building blocks he wants the next day.
"So we're constantly communicating about our practice plan and putting the system in. He's removed, so the silver lining is that he sees things we can't see because we're in the eye of the hurricane."
The Red Storm has filled out the roster with walk-ons so they can begin to scrimmage, but for now, the emphasis is on teaching the six new recruits, including junior college transfers God'sgift Achiuwa and Nurideen Lindsey and freshmen Maurice Harkless, D'Angelo Harrison, Phil Greene and Sir'Dominic Pointer. Not surprisingly, Dunlap said defense will take the most work because scoring won't be a problem.
The coaching staff didn't worry much about foul problems last season with such a deep roster, but Dunlap said, "This year, it's a top priority."
The 6-8 Achiuwa, who will start in the post for St. John's, knows he will be targeted by opposing teams just as he was at Erie Community College in Buffalo. "Teams tried to come at me," Achiuwa said. "The Big East is a more experienced league, and they know we have fewer big men."
If Achiuwa gets in trouble, the 6-8 Harkless can move into the post. He and Lindsey figure to provide much of the scoring, and Harrison is a strong outside shooter. "I like our talent level a lot," Harkless said. "I think we're going to surprise a lot of people."
Compared to many Big East teams, St. John's lacks significant height, but Dunlap noted the great UCLA coach John Wooden said it was better to recruit quickness than height. "We have quick players," Dunlap said.
Defending national champion Connecticut and Syracuse tied for first in the Big East preseason basketball coaches’ poll (first-place votes in parentheses):
1. Connecticut, 209 (7)
2. Syracuse, 209 (5)
3. Louisville, 201 (3)
4. Pittsburgh, 188 (1)
5. Cincinnati, 169
6. Marquette, 155
7. West Virginia, 132
8. Villanova, 127
9. Notre Dame, 114
10. Georgetown, 104
11. Rutgers, 75
12. St. John’s 71
13. Seton Hall, 56
14. South Florida, 43
15. Providence, 40
16. DePaul, 27
Player of the year: Ashton Gibbs, G, Pittsburgh
Rookie of the year: Andre Drummond, C, Connecticut
Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh, G, Sr.
Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut, G/F, Soph.
Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette, G, Sr.
Tim Abromaitis, Notre Dame, F, Sr.
Kris Joseph, Syracuse, F, Sr.
Kevin Jones, West Virginia, F, Sr.
Yancy Gates, Cincinnati, F, Sr.
Alex Oriakhi, Connecticut, F/C, Jr.
Peyton Siva, Louisville, G, Jr.
Scoop Jardine, Syracuse, G, Sr.
Maalik Wayns, Villanova, G, Jr.
Andre Drummond, Connecticut, C, Fr.
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut, G, So.
Cleveland Melvin, DePaul, F, So.
Jae Crowder, Marquette, F, Sr.
Augustus Gilchrist, South Florida, F/C, Sr.