Players set to return to St. John's

TARRYTOWN, N.Y. -- St. John's guard D'Angelo Harrison is on track to return to the Red Storm next year, after being suspended for the team's final six games of the season.

And teammate Jakarr Sampson, the Big East Rookie of the Year, has decided to remain in school and not enter this summer's NBA draft.

That's two pieces of very good news for a program that has missed the NCAA tournament the past two seasons.

"[Harrison's] gotten off to a strong start, both in his response to the suspension and in his academic and workout responsibilities as well," coach Steve Lavin said Monday evening. "Couldn't be more pleased for this stage of the process, in terms of him working his way back into the fold."

Lavin spoke with reporters before the annual Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association awards dinner. Harrison was one of six players named to the All-Met first team, and also spoke with reporters, for the first time since he was suspended.

"It was best for me just to take some time away from basketball, and get my head together -- just take the pressure off of me, just take a breather basically," Harrison said. "There's stuff I need to work on. Just becoming more of a leader. I think it's helped me in a lot of ways."

Lavin took the unusual step of benching his best player, and the third-leading scorer in the Big East, in early March, with his team still very much in the mix for an NCAA tournament bid.

Without Harrison and his 17.8 points per contest, St. John's lost its final four regular season games and ended up in the NIT.

When the suspension was announced March 2, Lavin declined to go into specifics, in terms of the behavior that warranted such a harsh punishment. When asked to be more specific Monday, Lavin wouldn't go much further.

"It's more just maturity," Lavin said. "Just like parenting, each household is different, and the way in which they're gonna get the best out of their child or the best out of their pupils in the class, or the best out of their student-athletes in college, it's gonna vary.

"But this is the way I've been successful as a coach, in terms of turning out kids that not only get their degree and do well in life, but also move on to the NBA and have strong careers."

"It was just a lot of little stuff -- I just violated a whole bunch of team rules," Harrison said, specifically mentioning being late for the team bus and not shaving on game days as examples. "It was nothing, like, out of the ordinary. It wasn't like I got in trouble with the police."

Harrison admitted he was surprised by the suspension, and that it was hard to watch his teammates play on TV without him. But he said he never considered leaving the program. "Oh no, never, never that," Harrison said. "I told Lav, I wouldn't have come here if I didn't want to play here. I told him that right in his eyes."

Since the season ended, Harrison has been participating in offseason workouts with his teammates and the coaching staff. "It was the right thing across the board, for our program and for D'Angelo," Lavin said of the suspension. "And he's already responded in that mature fashion that's admirable. And I'm proud of him."

Sampson averaged 14.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game as a freshman, and could have elected to turn pro after one year. Last year's Big East Rookie of the Year -- Maurice Harkless, also of St. John's -- left school and was a first-round NBA draft pick.

But he will play at least one more season for the Red Storm. Sampson, who also won the MBWA's Rookie of the Year award, could not attend the dinner because of a class, but released some quotes through a St. John's spokesman.

"Obviously we'll want to make the Big Dance," Sampson said, speaking of next season. "It was fun watching the NCAA tournament and watching my best friend Mitch McGary from Michigan. It made me want to be there and hopefully we can do big things next year."

Retaining Harrison and Sampson, plus the vast majority of last year's roster, does bode well for next season. Plus St. John's recently received a verbal commitment from Rysheed Jordan, a star guard from Philadelphia, ranked the No. 22 high school senior in the country by ESPN Recruiting.

"We're gonna be just as deep as the Louisville team was this year. We have a lot of talent," Harrison said. "I might not even start next year -- I don't know how it's gonna work. But we're gonna be really good though. I'm excited. I'm really excited."