Facing the prospect of losing 10 seniors from last season's NCAA Tournament team, everyone at St. John's from head coach Steve Lavin on down understood this season would be difficult because of the lack of experience. But few could have imagined how difficult the challenge would become when a highly ranked recruiting class of nine players shrank by three before the season began and went through more changes as the season progressed.
Now, the one scholarship player who returned, junior point guard Malik Stith, has chosen to quit the team even though he plans to remain in school and has indicated he hopes to be involved with the team in some other capacity. That leaves the Red Storm's undermanned squad basically fighting the Battle of the Alamo in the Big East wars.
The psychological impact was there for all to see in St. John's 76-54 loss to Cincinnati Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden. The game got out of hand early in the second half as the bigger, deeper Bearcats overwhelmed the Red Storm with a superior effort on defense and rebounding.
The situation begged the question of whether Lavin took too many academic risks with his original nine-man recruiting class. Norvel Pelle, JaKarr Sampson and Amir Garrett all failed to qualify academically for the first semester. Then, junior college transfer Nurideen Lindsey dropped out of school after nine games. Fortunately for the Red Storm, Garrett stayed true to his commitment and became eligible for the second semester. But the loss of Stith (pictured), who was averaging only 14 minutes per game, comes as yet another blow.
Asked if St. John's perhaps should have made sure to bring in a deeper group of players who would qualify academically, assistant Mike Dunlap, who has been running things on the front lines while Lavin recuperates from prostate surgery, said that's a matter of 20-20 hindsight.
"We've got to go forward," Dunlap said. "We have what we have today. We're not without mistakes, but certainly, that's not what we're fixed on at all. Things happen, and we're going to continue to build a team that I think people can see is going to be pretty doggone exciting.
"But we're going to take it on the chops here and there, and one of those was tonight. We flat-out took it on the chops."
It was easy to see from the discouraged demeanor of his players in the Cincinnati loss that Dunlap's most difficult job the rest of the season is to keep everyone's spirits up as they run the gantlet of deeper and more experienced teams in the Big East.
"Absolutely," Dunlap said. "It's a challenge. They're 18 years old. But you know, if you look at the scores around the country, you're seeing some wallops happen out there. When you play in the 'big boy" conferences, you're seeing the disparity in the scores in February. A lot of times, it has to do with youth."
Opposing coaches repeatedly have praised the job Dunlap and the St. John's staff are doing with what they've got, and leading scorers D'Angelo Harrison and Moe Harkless have shown they are among the best freshmen in the country. Dunlap says he likes where the program is headed, but it's clear St. John's next recruiting class must include a talented group of reinforcements so Harkless, Harrison and the other four members of this recruiting class can believe there really is hope for the future.