As St. John's tiny band of brothers fought valiantly through the 2011-12 basketball season with a rotation reduced to six scholarship players, they were cheered on from afar by one very important fan.
JaKarr Sampson was supposed to be part of the Red Storm last season and actually spent that summer training on St. John's campus, but when he failed to qualify academically, Sampson de-committed.
He returned to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, where he once again was on the open recruiting market entertaining offers from the likes of Louisville, Baylor, Kansas and Florida. But there was something about St. John's, something about playing at Madison Square Garden, something about rejoining his friends that drew him back to Queens.
"I was upset with myself; I was upset with St. John's," the freshman forward said recently. "That's why I de-committed. When I sat around and thought about it, it was my fault for putting myself in that situation. I should have been taking care of my schoolwork. It was pretty much all on me.
"I watched my friends play basketball because I had met a lot of them, and we became really close. It was good to see them learn and grow. That's the main reason I came back here: because I was already really close with the team."
Originally, Sampson expected to be featured in the front court alongside forward Maurice Harkless. Now he'll replace Harkless, who became a one-and-done player when he was selected in the first round of the NBA draft by Philadelphia and later traded to Orlando.
Harkless was St. John's second-leading scorer behind guard D'Angelo Harrison, averaging 15.5 points and a team-leading 8.6 rebounds. The 6-8 Sampson has similar talents and the desire to replace what Harkless provided.
After first saying he'll do whatever coach Steve Lavin asks, Sampson added, "I feel I can step in [Harkless'] shoes and fill them . . . I played Moe in prep school. I feel we're similar players. Athletically, we're both quick, and we both create mismatches.
"I feel I can fill his shoes rebounding, too. I love playing defense and blocking shots. I consider that part of my game because defense creates good offense."
Sampson's confidence is a joyful noise that his teammates find infectious. Red Storm redshirt guard Max Hooper, who was Sampson's roommate in his first year at Brewster before going to Harvard last season, explains:
"Off the court, he's the most goofy, smilingest guy you could meet," Hooper said. "But on the court, the word I use to describe him is a 'killer.' He's got a fiery side to him, and he doesn't have to get riled up to bring that out. He brings it from the jump."
Lavin said the demands on Sampson won't be as great as those faced last season by Harkless when he and Harrison formed a 1-2 punch that had to deliver every game.
"It's a totally different situation," Lavin said. "The strength of this team is the balance. It may be the deepest, most balanced team I've coached except for the youth."
Senior forward God'sgift Achiuwa did not suit up for Saturday night's season-opening exhibition game. St. John's senior associate athletic director/communications Mark Fratto said Lavin is considering redshirting Achiuwa because the team has considerable depth this season.
The Red Storm added 6-9 center Chris Obekpa, 6-9 forward Orlando Sanchez and 6-7 forward Christian Jones. Returning Sir'Dominic Pointer and Amir Garrett are joined as swingmen by 6-6 freshman Marc-Antoine Bourgault. Harrison will move to point guard and get backcourt help from returning Phil Greene and Texas A&M transfer Jamal Branch, who becomes eligible in the second semester.
But of all the Red Storm's newcomers, Sampson is the one who comes with the most promise of greatness. He said the extra year at Brewster was a blessing because he matured mentally. "I'm going to produce," he said. "I know I'm going to produce. But we're much deeper than last year. I don't feel like all the pressure is on me."
No doubt Sampson will have more help than Harkless and Harrison did. But one question still begs an answer: Sampson or Harkless. Who's better?
With a big smile, Sampson said, "I don't want to throw Moe underneath the bus, but . . . no, it was really competitive, a good matchup."
With Bob Herzog
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