What a difference nine months makes. It was back in early March that St. John's basketball coach, Steve Lavin was wrapping up an impressive 20-win season. He led the Red Storm to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002, and the Johnnies finished with a final rank of 18 in the AP Poll.
Despite their first round loss to Gonzaga and returning only one player from 2010, there was plenty of excitement in Jamaica leading into this season. Lavin was bringing in a recruiting class that was ranked third in the country and included six players in the top 100.
Then, as the calendar turned to April, the tide quickly turned against the Red Storm. First, Lavin announced he had a low-grade form of prostate cancer and would begin treatments immediately. By the time September rolled around, three of the Johnnies star recruits, forwards, Amir Garrett and JaKarr Simpson, and center, Norvelle Pelle were ruled academically ineligible. The NCAA disallowed three classes that each took this past summer at Northeast Preparatory School in Philadelphia.
Since play started, things have not been much better. St. John's sits with a 4-5 record and has lost three in a row, most recently 69-63 to the Detroit Titans (who?).
Lavin has been away for much of the past two months recuperating from cancer surgery. He missed the season opener, and then returned to coach the next four games. Since then, Lavin has been on an indefinite leave of absence, saying he had come back prematurely and needed to build up more physical stamina before returning full-time.
To make matters worse, junior college transfer Nurideen Lindsey announced last week he is transferring from St. John's after this semester. Lindsey is currently third on the team in scoring (11.8) and rebounds (4.9) per game, and is shooting 46 percent from the field.
While the Red Storm are off to a slow start, it's early and the team can certainly improve over the next few months. Going forward, however, the strength of the St. John's recruiting effort will definitely be affected by the confusion and uncertainty facing the future of the Big East Conference as a basketball powerhouse. With the league in transition, it remains to be seen whether top ranked recruits will continue to view schools like St. John's as a potential gateway to the NBA.
But even if the Big East maintains its basketball dominance, the Johnnies have problems luring talent that may other basketball powerhouses don't have.
As a commuter school, St. John's provides less opportunity for star athletes to soak up the benefits of celebrity. And let's face it, Jamaica isn't Manhattan. As a matter of fact, for a college athlete, it isn't even Manhattan, KS (home of the Kansas St. Wildcats). Being a college athlete in the Big Apple may have its benefits, but the competition for attention is fierce, as the city is stocked with all sorts of celebrities from all walks of life.
The biggest pull for some recruits may be that St. John's plays a handful of its home games at Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, anyone who's been to a St. John's game at the Garden in recent years knows it features plenty of empty seats and limited energy.
Lastly, the Garden may not hold the same fascination for today's recruit, who was five years old the last time the Knicks really made magic in the World's Most Famous Arena. Bernard King is a relative of the St. Bernard dog, right?
While it's certainly not out of the question for St. John's to return to national prominence, what seemed like the next step for Coach Lavin and the Johnnies is becoming more difficult than imagined. Let's hope Lavin can improve his health first, and then his program.
Pete is a lifelong Montauk resident and former sports talk host at 88.7FM WEER. He can be reached via email at Peterfmundo@gmail.com.