St. John's freshman Phil Greene admits he never expected the challenge would be as great as it has become for the Red Storm's beleagured six-man recruiting class. Of course, it started out as a nine-man class, but three dropped by the wayside and the only returning veteran, Malik Stith, also abandoned the cause.
The rate of attrition could be compared to a Marine boot camp, and the demanding standard of excellence set by assistant coach Mike Dunlap, with its long hours of preparation, also has come as a wakeup call to the kids about what it takes to survive in the Big East. Of course, Dunlap has assumed more responsibility with head coach Steve Lavin MIA while operating on a modified schedule after prostate cancer surgery.
"From the beginning, we thought we would have the whole squad," freshman guard Phil Greene said of the nine-man recruiting class ranked in the top three in the country. "But it didn't happen, and coach Lavin went out. It's unexpected obstacles. We've just got to withstand it."
On a night like Tuesday at the Prudential Center, it seemed like a long forced march for the Red Storm. They were just three days removed from a battle to the wire on the road at No. 10 Georgetown, so, they understandably had little left in the tank to fight back when Seton Hall made 15 of 24 three-point attempts, including nine straight to start the second half of a 94-64 victory.
St. John's six-man rotation played 194 of a possible 200 minutes as Dunlap used practice players Jamal White and Sam Sealy for only six minutes even though the game was out of reach most of the second half. After all, Dunlap figures it's his job to give this core of six as much exposure under the toughest of circumstances to prepare them to succeed somewhere down the road.
Although Dunlap said it was fair to ask if his players have hit the wall physically, he said, "I think it was more mental than it was physical. We're in uncharted waters for the pups."
Because he has to protect his players from foul trouble as much as possible and has no depth, Dunlap plays a defense predicated on making opponents try to beat them from the outside. Seton Hall did that by making what the Red Storm gave it, but Dunlap said it wasn't just a matter of not defending the perimeter.
"Yeah, they made threes, but Seton Hall was multi-dimensional," Dunlap said admiringly. "They scored in the paint; they made threes; they took us to the woodshed…These guys are going to get through this, reflect on this, and I'll tell you what, they're going to play with a harder edge."
Dunlap expressed his admiration for the resiliency the five freshmen and junior college transfer God'sgift Achiuwa have shown to keep getting up and going back at it hard in practice and in games. Asked if he's afraid of losing them if things get much harder, Dunlap said, "No, my thing is the story line could be wonderful on Saturday. We've not only won, but we've played quality basketball. What a story it would be if we got after UCLA the way we want to on Saturday."
Talk about seeing the glass as half full, Dunlap sees it as overflowing with promise for the future if everyone will just stay on point and get through these tough times until the next recruiting class arrives. On nights like the one they experienced at Seton Hall, it ain't easy. But Dunlap said he would be looking at his laptop on the bus ride back to St. John's and he'd be at work bright and early in the morning to meet with players, go over what they did well and what they can improve and start preparing them for the UCLA game Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
"I told them, I'll take full responsibility for the final margin," Dunlap said. "If you're defensive in these moments, players will move away from you. One thing I learned from [football coach] Lou Holtz is, when you're losing be visible. When you're winning, be invisible."
So, Dunlap is standing up and taking the bullets for the whole program, but in the meantime, he's also working like crazy to prepare St. John's kids not only to survive but to thrive in the future. Just like a good drill sergeant should.