NEW YORK -- St. John's held an unofficial tipoff for the 2011-12 basketball season Saturday afternoon, when its new team was introduced to fans attending "Dribble For The Cure," a benefit raising money for pediatric cancer research.
It was also the first time since the school year began that coach Steve Lavin and his six new players were made available to the media. And despite a flurry of potential distractions surrounding Lavin and his program right now, the coach sounded calm and optimistic.
"They're ready," Lavin said of his new squad, which includes four freshmen and two junior college transfers among its eight current scholarship players. "You can sense an eager group. I call it 'eager, earnest learners,' and that's such an important trait or characteristic if you're going to be successful. They're willing students of the game."
Before full practices begin with Midnight Madness on Friday, Oct. 14, Lavin will begin a new phase of treatment for prostate cancer, which he was diagnosed with in the fall of 2010.
Lavin -- in consultation with his doctors -- had elected to monitor the disease without taking more proactive steps to combat it. But now he is weighing whether to have surgery or try radiation treatments, and he expects to make a decision and commence treatment within the first 10 days of October.
"After the most recent consultation, my doctors feel at this point that the active surveillance approach is off the table," Lavin said Saturday. "So that narrows the treatment options to surgery or radiation. The advantage of early detection is that we have these options that can assist in leading to a cancer-free life."
On the basketball front, St. John's has been dealing with the fallout from the decision announced last weekend by Syracuse and Pittsburgh to jump ship from the Big East to the ACC.
"I think at this point it's too early to really speculate, because there's so many moving parts," Lavin said, when asked about further potential conference realignment involving the Big East. "However it shakes out, my personal belief is that St. John's will be in strong position to continue as a storied basketball program."
St. John's also learned just over a week ago that three more incoming freshmen who were slated to join the Red Storm this season -- JaKarr Sampson, Norvel Pelle and Amir Garrett -- were declared academically ineligible for the fall semester by the NCAA.
Lavin could not comment on those three players Saturday, because technically their recruitment is re-opened now that they're ineligible this fall. One or all of them could still become eligible for the spring semester, in which case they would only miss 10 games and be able to start practicing with the team on Dec. 19. But Lavin has to prepare as if he will be without them.
"We have a razor-thin margin for error, in terms of injuries or foul trouble," Lavin said. "So we'll have to be very prudent on the defensive end of the floor, in terms of exhibiting defensive discipline, using good judgment. It amplifies the importance of all the defensive fundamentals -- moving the feet, not reaching, not lunging defensively. And staying down on shot fakes, not skying up and making yourself vulnerable or prone to fouling."
Maurice Harkless, Sir'Dominic Pointer and D'Angelo Harrison are freshmen who were ranked among the top 100 high school seniors in the country by ESPNU. All three are enthusiastic about the upcoming season.
"I'm real excited," said Harkless, a 6-foot-6 small forward. "Every day we're just trying to get better and prepare for that [first] day [of practice] to come. I can't wait."
"Everybody likes each other, everybody's cool," said the 6-6 Pointer. "It's coming along great."
"Bonding with my teammates, that's the first thing," said Harrison, a 6-3 shooting guard. "We gotta become a family before we get on the court."
So far the players have been able to have limited individual workouts with the coaching staff, and they also get together to play on their own a few times a week -- usually at 6 a.m. "We're just trying to build habits," Harrison said. "Can you get up and be on time and work out and be good at practice?"
All six newcomers live in the same dorm. Harkless, a Queens native, has been helping them out with recommendations on places to eat and where to get haircuts.
"We all hang out together all the time. You see one of us, you pretty much see all of us," Harkless said. "I think we've been bonding really well together -- real fast, actually. It's kind of surprising how well we've bonded so far."
They will have some new teammates soon, whether the trio of ineligible recruits come aboard in December or not. Soon after Midnight Madness, the coaching staff will hold open tryouts, and the plan is to add as many as five or six walk-on players to the roster, mostly to help out in practice.
"We'll have a strong student engagement," Lavin said, chuckling.
But he is seriously excited about the upcoming season, too.
"We knew coming in to this year that, whether we had six newcomers or nine newcomers, playing in the Big East with a young team is gonna be a great challenge," Lavin said. "It's one we look forward to -- that's why we're in the business. It'll be rewarding just to watch the development."