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St. John's basketball: Steve Lavin leads talented but young group

After a difficult year St. John's head coach Steve Lavin is ready to lead a deep, young group filled with potential.

Patrick McDermott

The first two seasons of the Steve Lavin era has been anything but conventional for the St. John's Red Storm men's basketball program.

Year one, featured a remarkable season led by a core group of seniors that helped St. John's earn a NCAA Tournament berth for the first time since 2002. Year two, was a complete overhaul that was suppose to feature a top-notch recruiting class but was overshadowed by off-the-court issues surrounding Lavin, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and players transferring.

Despite the issues, St. John's was able to compile a 13-19 mark overall and a 6-12 record in the Big East Conference thanks to an impressive first-year performance from forward Moe Harkless. The Big East Rookie of the Year averaged 15.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, and eventually ended up being a first-round selection in the 2012 NBA Draft.

This season, Lavin will be coaching a roster that features a lot of turnover and new pieces. Returning is a a pair of sophomore guards, D`Angelo Harrison and Phil Greene, sophomore guards/forwards, Sir`Dominic Pointer and Amir Garrett, and senior forward God`sgift Achiuwa. All five are expected to provide whatever veteran leadership they can to an incoming recruiting class of eight.

Featured in that group is: Freshman forward JaKarr Sampson, the No. 51-best recruit in the Class of 2011 according to Rivals; freshman center Chris Obekpa, No. 58 recruit in Class of '12 (via Rivals); freshman forward Christian Jones; freshman guard Jamal Branch; and JUCO transfer forward Orlando Sanchez.

"We're very pleased about our roster in terms of personal and the complementary pieces," Lavin said last Wednesday at Big East media day in New York. "But we're also realist that there's a maturation process. We have to come of age, there's a learning curve that a young team has to go through.

"What will determine whether we have a successful season will be how quickly we mature and come of age and learn to do the things it takes to be successful."

Specifically, Lavin said this team was built around the philosophies of legendary UCLA Bruins head coach John Wooden, who believed a prospect must have a set of five tools to be successful: skill, quickness, length, height and strength.

"You look at our roster, quickness and skill and length is clearly in play," said Lavin, who was immersed in the UCLA culture when he coached there from 1996-03.

The Johnnies skill, however, will be tested by its lack of experience. And one of the ways Lavin is hoping to shorten the learning curve is to hold multiple scrimmages that will place his roster of 16 players in a lot of game-like situations. The hope is to play anywhere between 15-20 games before the Red Storm's first regular-season game against the Detroit Titans on Nov. 13.

Last Wednesday, St. John's was picked to finish 10th in the Preseason Coaches' Poll but will be a popular sleeper pick by many college basketball experts because of its young and developing talent.

Leading the group will be Harrison, who averaged 17.0 point per game last season and was a Big East preseason second-team selection. But Lavin insists Greene (7.6 ppg) was the player that improved the most during the offseason and is poised to have a breakout year.

Pointer (6.6 ppg) will play a major role too, as he's expected to play some minutes at point guard along with his natural position of shooting guard.

Forwards Garrett and Achiuwa will be St. John's brutes inside, however, Lavin said newcomer Jones (6'7, 228 pounds) will be the sleeper of the incoming recruiting class.

"He's got brute strength with good hands and nimble feet," Lavin said. "He play-makes well in the post with a great jump hook with his back to the basket. He sets a pick like a lumberjack."

Like Harkless, Sampson (6'8, 206) is expected to make an impact right away while Sanchez (6'9, 216) will give the Johnnies some versatility.

Don't be surprised if other names like sophomore Marc-Antoine Bourgault and Branch find their way into some playing minutes as the season progresses.