At first glance, there isn't anything out of the ordinary about Kim Barnes Arico's office at St. John's University. It has the requisite bookcase filled with basketball trophies and plaques. It has a comfy seating area for heart-to-heart talks with visiting recruits. And it has a basket filled with baby toys.
Yes, baby toys. They are the first of many hints that this is no ordinary office and Barnes Arico is no ordinary basketball coach.
There are many others. Such as the peek-a-boo board book sitting with the pile of basketball magazines on the coffee table. Or the story Barnes Arico tells about taking her middle daughter Emma to every road game a few years ago so she could breast-feed her.
"I never slept," said Barnes Arico, 39, "but it worked out OK."
Actually, most basketball fans would say that Barnes Arico's eight-year tenure at St. John's has worked out much better than OK. Mixing her two passions - family and basketball - the mother of three has transformed St. John's from a place that top local players wouldn't even consider to one that is attracting the attention of top recruits from all over the country.
St. John's enters the Big East Tournament this weekend with a 24-5 mark, the most wins for the program in 26 years. With a team that has four freshmen and a sophomore in its regular rotation, St. John's was picked to finish 12th in the Big East preseason poll. Instead, it finished fourth in the conference and is ranked 16th nationally after scoring recent big wins over Notre Dame and Rutgers.
"We all knew we were a lot better than people thought we were going to be," said sophomore Da'Shena Stevens, who leads the team in scoring with 14.2 points per game. "Coach has an attitude that anything is possible."
That "anything is possible" attitude has been the key to Barnes Arico's rise through the coaching ranks despite the fact that she is not the product of a powerhouse college basketball program. Raised in Mastic Beach, she played at Floyd High School and Stony Brook before finishing at Montclair State in 1993. She had stints coaching in high school, at Fairleigh Dickinson-Madison and at New Jersey Institute of Technology - where she once lost a game by 100 points - before landing a job at Adelphi in 1999. She caught the attention of St. John's after taking Adelphi to the women's NCAA Sweet 16 in 2002.
Barnes Arico took over a team that had had only one winning season in the previous 11 years. Recruiting was a humbling experience.
"I went to see Tina Charles at Christ the King and it was, 'You have no shot at this kid,' " Barnes Arico said of the current Connecticut star. "We kept going after the top kids. I felt that St. John's could be a good place for some of them."
Barnes Arico set out to establish a family atmosphere at St. John's, looking to appeal to top talents who wanted to stay close to home. Her husband, Larry Arico, who is the football coach and athletic director at Marist High School in Bayonne, N.J., brings their three kids, ages 8, 4 and 1, to nearly every game.
It was that family atmosphere that appealed to North Babylon's Eugeneia McPherson, who is averaging 5.6 points off the bench as a freshman. McPherson is a member of the 11th-best recruiting class in the nation, according to HoopGurlz.com. All five of the freshmen are from the New York area and have big contingents of friends and family who attend home games.
"This is like a home away from home," McPherson said. "My family can watch me play and that was the big factor in my decision."
Barnes Arico said she has never questioned her decision to have a family while trying to establish her career, though she did come close to it in 2008 when, eight months pregnant, she was coaching her team in an NIT game in North Carolina.
Said Barnes Arico: "I've come a different route than a lot of other coaches have and I think some of our players appreciate that. I wouldn't change any of it."