NEW YORK -- A month before practice begins, St. John's was dealt a significant blow to their 2011-12 men's basketball season Thursday, when three members of its much-ballyhooed incoming class were declared ineligible for at least the fall semester.
Jakarr Sampson, Norvel Pelle and Amir Garrett -- all three among the top 100 players in the nation in their high school class, according to ESPNU's rankings -- will not be able to suit up for the Red Storm this fall, after failing to qualify academically.
"We will continue to work with the NCAA in an effort to review Amir, Norvel and Jakarr's cases regarding their eligibility," said St. John's coach Steve Lavin in a statement. "Our student-athletes and their families have been patient and cooperative throughout this review process. We are hopeful that Amir, Norvel and Jakarr will be able to join us on the court this winter, and in the classroom when the 2012 spring semester begins."
The freshman trio will miss at least the first 10 games of the season. If any or all of them are able to qualify for the spring semester, they can practice beginning on Dec. 19, and play starting with St. John's home game versus Texas-Pan American on Dec. 21.
"The NCAA Eligibility Center informed us this afternoon that after a review, these three PSAs (prospective student-athletes) cannot qualify at this time," said St. John's athletic director Chris Monasch. "The university has been proactive and diligent in assisting in the reviews for each of our incoming men's basketball student-athletes. We will continue to review what avenues the student-athletes may have to achieve their initial eligibility."
St. John's already faced a tall order this season, returning just one player who saw significant playing time a year ago, junior reserve guard Malik Stith. But Lavin reeled in the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, according to ESPNU -- behind only Kentucky and Duke. That class was comprised of nine players, six of whom were ranked in the ESPNU 100.
But now Sampson (a 6-foot-7, 190-pound small forward), Pelle (a 6-foot-10, 200-pound power forward) and Garrett (a 6-foot-6, 190-pound small forward) will not be available, at least at the start. Sampson was the No. 32 ranked player in the country coming out of high school, while Pelle was ranked No. 77 and Garrett No. 99.
Even if these three players become eligible in the spring, they will have missed the opportunity to gain valuable experience and develop chemistry with their teammates in the first portion of the season. St. John's will be relying almost entirely on newcomers, and faces one of the more daunting schedules in the country. Besides its 18-game Big East slate, the Red Storm will play at Kentucky, at Duke, and host both Arizona and UCLA. The Arizona and Kentucky matchups occur during the first semester, and St. John's will have a very short bench for its first 10 games.
The three players could also elect to leave St. John's entirely. Garrett, for instance, is also a top baseball prospect, and was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 22nd round of the Major League Baseball draft in June. Garrett, who received a $1 million signing bonus from the Reds, was going to play basketball for St. John's in the fall and spring, and play minor league baseball for the Reds in the summer. But his plans could change now.
Kieran Darcy is a staff writer for ESPNNewYork.com.