Steve Lavin believes St. John's will contend in Big East despite departure of JaKarr Sampson

Steve Lavin of the St. John's Red Storm Steve Lavin of the St. John's Red Storm reacts from the bench near the end of the first half against the Syracuse Orange during the quarterfinals of the 2011 Big East Men's Basketball Tournament presented by American Eagle Outfitters at Madison Square Garden on March 10, 2011. Photo Credit: Getty Images

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With a nucleus of D'Angelo Harrison, Rysheed Jordan and JaKarr Sampson, St. John's would have been among the favorites to win the Big East next season. But Sampson on Tuesday formally announced his decision to enter the NBA draft, leaving a gaping 6-8 hole in the Red Storm frontcourt that will be hard to fill with the same level of athleticism and production.

"Clearly, JaKarr is a loss," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. Smiling at the player seated next to him at the news conference, Lavin added, "If he changes his mind, he can call me."

That's not going to happen. Lavin said it was clear that Sampson was ready to make his move to the pros despite being projected as a late first-round or early second-round pick.

"We'd love to coach him another year or two, but it's a situation where we have to be happy for JaKarr," Lavin said. "It's his life and these are his dreams and aspirations and goals. He knows he's just scratching the surface in terms of where he could take his game."

Sampson was Big East rookie of the year as a freshman, and he evolved into a more complete player as a sophomore with his improvement on the defensive end. "I feel like it's time, and I'm ready," Sampson said. "I definitely see myself as a first-round pick."

There is no shortage of skeptics who believe he might fall out of the first round and a guaranteed contract. "I've just got to show them," said Sampson, who insisted his decision was not driven by financial need. "I'm going to work my butt off this summer."

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St. John's is the only team in the Big East not to sign a single recruit last fall. Lavin has four scholarships available, but he said he could be content with the current roster if he doesn't add anyone in the April signing period.

Redshirt forward Christian Jones is the likely replacement for Sampson. St. John's also is recruiting 6-11 Christ the King center Adonis Delarosa. But Lavin said he's prepared to play with a smaller, guard-oriented lineup.

"We like our roster the way it is," Lavin said. "If we get a piece or two [fine] . . . but 2015 and '16 are the classes we're focused on. We may be a little smaller, but if you look at the personnel on the other rosters in our conference, we match up very well with everyone in the league. I wouldn't trade our guys for anybody in this league."

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