Thursday's biggest college hoops news came from New York City, where three members of Steve Lavin's highly touted 2011 St. John's recruiting class were declared ineligible for the fall semester by the NCAA. The three players -- forwards Amir Garrett, Jakarr Sampson and Norvel Pelle -- are all ranked among the top 100 incoming players this season.
As Diamond noted Thursday, at least one of those players, Garrett, hopes to be eligible in time for the spring semester. But even if he's back, there's no getting around it: This is a major blow to the chances of St. John's in 2011-12.
At a normal rebuilding situation with normal personnel turnover, this might not seem like such a big deal. But as I've written before, St. John's is not a normal rebuilding situation. Steve Lavin lost 10 seniors -- 10 seniors! -- from last year's surprisingly tough team. He replaced those 10 seniors with a nine-player recruiting class. Six of those players were ESPNU top 100 recruits, three of them (Dom Pointer, Maurice Harkless and Sampson) are ranked among the top 10 players at their position. This was an experiment: Could the oldest team in the country become the youngest and still compete? Was the talent enough? Or, as we saw at Memphis last season, would this many freshman need at least a year to adapt to college basketball?
Maybe St. John's wasn't planning on being a national title contender in 2011-12, but they had the talent to give the Big East a decent run for its money. Now, with Sampson out and the team's depth badly damaged, the worst-case scenario for all this young talent -- a difficult, frustrating season of collective adjustment to the college game -- seems far more plausible than any optimistic projection.
That said, there's a good case to be made that this really isn't that big of a deal. CBSSports.com's Jeff Goodman explains:
Let's face it: St. John's was going to take their lumps this year, anyway. Steve Lavin has already proven he can get players - and he'll continue to get them. [...]
This season will be rough as the Red Storm will not only be young, but they'll also lack depth. That's a brutal combination in a league as unforgiving to inexperience as the Big East. But there were only so many minutes, anyway, and now Pointer, Harkless and Harrison will gobble up the majority of them - instead of having to split them with the JUCO kids and also Sampson, Pelle and Garrett.
It does alleviate some roster issues; Lavin doesn't have to choose between a bunch of guys with similar positions and talents, all of whom signed on expecting significant immediate roles. And if you believe the youngsters weren't up to the rigors of the Big East anyway, then what's the big deal? A rebuilding year is a rebuilding year is a rebuilding year.
That said, I wouldn't overlook the systemic concerns this presents. In other words: Lavin is trying to build a program in the most media-drenched, distracted city in the world. He's fighting the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets, Knicks and Nets for fans' attention and disposable income. He's trying to make St. John's New York's college basketball team again. Last year, he took a major step in the right direction. If all went well, 2011-12 could have been another such step -- a young, exciting team full of talented New York products competing with the Big East big boys in Madison Square Garden? If you were a doctor prescribing medicine to basketball programs, that's exactly what you'd prescribe to St. John's.
Do fans pay less attention now? I don't know. At the end of the day, this feels like a minor setback. But momentum -- both on and off the court -- is one of the Johnnies' most valuable assets. Losing that momentum, even momentarily, can't possibly be a positive.