- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- While most of you were sleeping Sunday morning, St. John's was searching for a few good men.
It was pitch-black outside, but the lights were on full blast in Taffner Field House when assistant coach Mike Dunlap blew his whistle at 5:51 a.m. With that, 26 prospective men's basketball players gathered around Dunlap at midcourt, to begin a morning that none of them will likely ever forget.
Less than 48 hours earlier, St. John's had staged a rousing Midnight Madness celebration next door at Carnesecca Arena, to officially tip off the 2011-12 season. But there were only eight players to introduce to the crowd. After three incoming freshmen were declared academically ineligible last month, the Johnnies were suddenly faced with a serious dilemma -- they don't even have enough bodies to play five-on-five in practice.
Hence, the coaching staff decided to hold an open tryout for walk-on players, with the potential of adding as many as five or six to the roster, according to head coach Steve Lavin.
"We'll have a strong student engagement," Lavin joked back in September.
The head coach was not present Sunday morning, as he continues his recovery from prostate cancer surgery. So Dunlap took the reins, with fellow assistant coach Tony Chiles watching from the sideline.
If the 26 young men who showed up Sunday morning expected the coaches to just roll out the balls and watch them play pickup games -- and some of them did -- they were sorely mistaken.
To start, for a full hour, Dunlap put the players through drill after drill after drill. First came end-to-end running, with some stutter steps and jump stops mixed in. Then came full-court two-man passing drills, which concluded with a layup at the beginning, followed by a foul-line jumper, followed by a 3-point attempt.
Sounds pretty easy, right? Except Dunlap had his eyes peeled. Make a bad pass? Head to the sideline, you're out. Miss your layup? Get off the court. Jump off the wrong foot? Yep, you're done.
There weren't any water breaks, either. But Dunlap did pause the proceedings from time to time, to lecture the prospective varsity players. He repeatedly emphasized the importance of playing smart, being coachable and having a good attitude. "We can get a donkey to just work hard," Dunlap said at one point.
There were plenty of cringe-inducing moments over the course of the morning -- bricked layups, air-balled 3-pointers and the like. But there were also a handful of guys who showed flashes of skill and athleticism -- including 6-foot-5 senior Chuck Anakwenze, a transfer who played for two years at Division II Minnesota State Moorhead before tearing his ACL.
Anakwenze transferred to St. John's because he thought it was a better school academically, and that it would be easier to find a job in New York. But now he is hoping to resurrect his basketball career for one more year. "It would be an honor," Anakwenze said. "As a basketball player, I don't know who doesn't want play in the Garden, play on ESPN, and just play for a school that has as much pride and history as this school."
Anakwenze was so excited about Sunday's tryout, he had a hard time sleeping. "I actually kinda tried to overdo it," he said. "I went to bed at 8:45, so I was up at about 2 and just wired from there."
Another promising-looking guard was 6-1 Harlem native Jody Card, who played AAU ball for the New York Gauchos several years ago, but then joined the Army and served his country for four years. Card, 26, just got back from a one-year deployment in Iraq in April, and enrolled as a freshman at St. John's this fall.
"I'm very fortunate to be a part of this, and I think it's a great opportunity for all of us," Card said of the tryout. "I would be ecstatic [to make the team]. I hope I do get that chance."
At 7 a.m., Dunlap finally let the guys play five-on-five -- but with a catch. He divvied the group up into four teams, and they played full-court knockout -- if your team scores, you stay on the floor. But each player was allowed to dribble only one time per possession.
"We're looking for the 'we' mindset, not the 'me' mindset," Dunlap told the players. "Play with each other. We don't want a lone ranger."
The full-court action was rather helter-skelter, with bodies flying everywhere. But the players heeded the coach's words -- there were no chuckers among the group. And the camaraderie among teammates, slapping high-fives after good plays and such, was nice to see.
With the current St. John's roster featuring only two players 6-8 or above, you couldn't help but pay attention to the couple of big guys getting up and down the floor during the full-court knockout stage. Samuel Sealy-James, a 6-8 freshman from Longwood High School on Long Island, was the tallest player of the bunch. The next biggest was Jeff Ashamole, measuring 6-7½, a transfer originally from North Brunswick, N.J., who played for one season at Middlesex Community College.
Both are raw, but their size alone gives them a decent chance to make the roster. "It would mean a lot," Sealy-James said about making the squad. "It would be a dream come true."
At 7:33 a.m., the scoreboard buzzer sounded, bringing an end to the early-morning exhibition. Afterward, Dunlap was asked for his thoughts on what he had just watched.
"Well, we saw what we expected," Dunlap said. "We thought that there would be three or four guys that might fit into the criteria that we were looking for. But the thing that we really enjoyed was the attitude of the whole group. They were very receptive."
The assistant coaches were slated to meet later in the day to discuss who might merit a roster spot. Those chosen could be on the practice floor with the regular team as soon as Monday. But for now, the majority of the players packed up their stuff and left the building -- probably to go back to bed. Jody Card lingered, shooting jumpers on one of the Taffner rims off to the side.
Whether shooting or sleeping, one thing's for sure -- all 26 were dreaming.
And that was definitely worth waking up for.
St. John's invited 26 walk-ons for a 6 a.m. tryout. We were there.