NEW YORK -- St. John's held its annual men's basketball media day on Friday. The players were all smiles -- many of them going through this for the first time, on the verge of officially beginning their college basketball careers. But St. John's decided not to take a team picture.
Why? Because someone important was missing.
Head coach Steve Lavin has been away from the team since undergoing prostate cancer surgery on Oct. 6. He is still recuperating, and is expected to miss the Red Storm's regular season opener on Monday.
Special assistant Gene Keady, who filled in for Lavin on Friday, said he has been missed.
"It's been huge," Keady said. "His leadership is very valuable, and we want him back in the worst way."
When St. John's hosts William & Mary on Monday night at Carnesecca Arena, you won't recognize many of the faces. Only two of the nine players on the roster were here a year ago, and only one received any significant playing time.
So what better way to preview the upcoming season than to introduce all nine players to you?
Without further ado, your 2011-12 St. John's Red Storm:
MALIK STITH: "POPS"
Stith has experienced a roller-coaster ride at St. John's -- and he's only entering his junior year. The 5-foot-11 guard from Hempstead, N.Y., appeared in 32 of 33 games as a freshman, averaging 11 minutes per game. But then coach Norm Roberts was let go, Lavin was brought in, and the expectation was that Stith would probably transfer to another school.
Lavin met with Stith to discuss possibly finding another place for Stith to play, to give him a second chance at a Division I career. "Coach, you are my second chance," Stith told Lavin.
The new coach was impressed by Stith's attitude, and he ended up appearing in 26 of 33 games last season, averaging 3.3 points in 12.2 minutes per game. And now, after the graduation of nine seniors and the transfer of Dwayne Polee, Stith remarkably finds himself as the elder statesman of the team -- hence, the nickname.
Stith has embraced the leadership role.
"It's not pressure -- actually, it's fun," Stith said. "I'm telling them stuff that I know, so it's not hard at all. It's actually fun to be able to tell somebody, 'Don't do this, do that,' and watch them grow."
NURIDEEN LINDSEY: THE PLAYMAKER
Lindsey, a 6-3 guard, was a prolific scorer at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, threatening to break Wilt Chamberlain's high school scoring record. But he faced serious challenges off the court, including the murder of his younger brother Halim, and ended up taking two years off from organized basketball before resuming his career at Redlands Community College in Oklahoma last season.
This year he will likely be the primary ball handler for St. John's, stepping in for the departed Dwight Hardy. In fact, Lindsey has been watching a ton of Hardy footage from last season. "I went to the coaches and told the coaching staff that it's something that I wanted to do on my own," Lindsey said. "I'll be in my dorm room just watching it over and over.
"Dwight is definitely a little bit different game-style, but his aggression is something that I've been kinda focusing on," Lindsey added. "He flourished in this system. And ultimately that's what I want to do."
Lindsey exhibited a very quick first step and a knack for getting to the basket in St. John's two exhibition games -- he will definitely get his fair share of points this season. But he's focused on more than scoring.
"I've kinda transitioned from being a scorer to trying to be a more all-around player," Lindsey said. "I think ultimately that's what will help us be successful more this year. We've got a lot of guys who can score the basketball on this team. As a leader, I'm cool with taking a backseat to scoring the basketball and doing the intangible things."
D'ANGELO HARRISON: THE MARKSMAN
"I tell him every day he could be the best shooter in America. I really believe that."
Those were the words of St. John's assistant coach Rico Hines, talking about Harrison, a 6-3 guard from Missouri City, Texas.
High praise, indeed. But Harrison struggled from the perimeter in the two exhibition games, making just three of 14 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc.
"I just need to get in the gym more," Harrison said. "I feel like I've kinda rushed my shot. I feel like I've missed more 3s than I ever have in the two games."
Look for Harrison to be the Red Storm's long-range bomber -- and their emotional leader. When the team huddled up before the start of the second exhibition, against St. Mary's (MD), it was Harrison in the center of the scrum, screaming at the top of his lungs.
"They know I get crazy," Harrison said, chuckling. "I'll be hyped before the game. Whatever is in my head, I just say it. We'll just be ready to go with that, always."
MOE HARKLESS: MR. DO-IT-ALL
If there is a second leader on this team along with Stith, it is probably Harkless. The 6-8 freshman from Queens is the only hometown product of the six-man recruiting class.
"I feel like I do have a leadership role, as well," Harkless said. "Because a lot of kids come to me when they have questions or anything like that, off the court or on the court as well."
That's not just because of his familiarity with their surroundings. Harkless is arguably the most talented player on this team. He was rated the 39th-best player in the country in his high school class by ESPN. And he posted a pair of double-doubles (14 points, 14 rebounds and 20 points, 12 rebounds) in the two exhibition games.
Harkless is more comfortable facing the basket on offense, but he's going to have to play both inside and outside because of St. John's lack of depth in the post.
"I think I'm just gonna have to be doing a lot of everything," Harkless said. "Scoring, defense, rebounding, blocking shots, all that stuff. Because we're short, and we're gonna have to find a way to get everything done."
GOD'SGIFT ACHIUWA: BIG MAN ON CAMPUS
It didn't take long for St. John's fans to embrace Achiuwa, the 6-9 forward who hails from Nigeria.
After he scored his first bucket in the team's exhibition opener against C.W. Post, the student section erupted into chants of "God's-on-our-side! God's-on-our-side!"
"I feel welcome," said Achiuwa, whose father is a minister, and who has a younger brother named God'swill. "Having those kind of chants during the game, and walking around campus and having people talk to me and say hello to me, I feel like I'm at home even though I'm far from home."
Achiuwa spent the past two years at Erie Community College in upstate New York, where he was a junior college All-American last season. He will be counted upon immediately to be St. John's primary weapon down low.
The truth is, St. John's has no other options. But the well-chiseled Achiuwa has plenty of muscle on his 236-pound frame, and the coaching staff has been very pleased with his progress thus far.
"He's got better hands than I thought he'd have," Keady said. "And he can run like a deer."
His teammates call him "Gift" -- but he's very proud of his full name, too.
SIR'DOMINIC POINTER: THE STOPPER
The St. John's coaching staff feels this year's team has plenty of scoring, even more than last season. "We have three or four guys that can maybe get 20 [points] on any given night," Hines said.
The focus of preseason practices has been getting all these new players to learn and buy into the team's defensive system -- full-court pressure, back into a matchup zone.
That's where Sir'Dominic comes in.
Pointer, a 6-6 freshman from Fraser, Mich., is a defensive standout. Yes, he averaged 20 points per game in his senior year of high school. But he also averaged 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and 4 blocks.
"Defense -- that's the easiest way to get on the floor," Pointer said. "So I start with that, and then I work on my offensive game. It's improving."
Pointer credits his quick feet, and his experience playing football and boxing, as helping make him the defender that he is. And he has already started fantasizing about the players he will get to guard this coming season.
"Oh, all the time, all the time," Pointer said, smiling. "Just watching some of the players last year from the Big East, like [UConn's] Jeremy Lamb -- I'm looking forward to checking them."
"I know what they brought me here for," Pointer added. "I'm ready to step up and take the challenge."
PHIL GREENE: "THE SILENT ASSASSIN"
That's the nickname Greene, a 6-2 freshman from Chicago, has been given by Keady. "He just does his job," Keady said. "You don't know he's there, but you look up and he's got 10 to 12 points, and two steals, and three rebounds. He's a special player."
Greene was probably the least heralded member of the recruiting class, but across the board the assistant coaches say he's been the most pleasant surprise since arriving on campus.
"They always had confidence in me," Greene said. "They said from the beginning that I was a special talent."
Greene came off the bench to score 20 points against C.W. Post, burying four of his six 3-point attempts. He can also handle the ball, defend -- and he feels he has something to prove.
"That's how I play, I play with a chip," Greene said. "Every game, I have a chip on my shoulder. Just come on the court and take care of business."
JAMAL WHITE: THE TRANSFER
Three years ago, White appeared in five games as a freshman for LIU, playing a grand total of nine minutes. Two years ago, he transferred to St. John's and had to sit out, per NCAA transfer rules. Last season, as a walk-on, he appeared in two games for the Red Storm, playing two minutes total.
This year? White's been given a scholarship.
But this wasn't simply a case of good fortune. "Jamal has worked really, really hard," Hines said. "He's earned it."
A 6-4 guard from Long Island, White averaged 26 points per game in his senior year at Roosevelt High School. He played only four minutes in the first exhibition game, and was a DNP-Coach's Decision in the second. But with St. John's glaring lack of depth, he's bound to play important minutes at some point this season.
SAM SEALY: THE WALK-ON
Most college students don't like waking up early -- especially on weekends. But 26 of them showed up at Taffner Field House on Sunday, Oct. 16, when St. John's held an open tryout.
And one of them will get to suit up for the Red Storm this coming season.
Sealy, a 6-8 freshman from Long Island, played varsity ball at Longwood High School. And on the Monday afternoon following the tryout, he got the call he was hoping for, telling him to come back to practice on Tuesday.
"Oh man, back home they're going crazy," Sealy said. "As soon as a couple of my friends found out, then everybody found out, and my phone has been ringing off the hook."
Sealy has already been dubbed "Slim" by his new teammates, because of his toothpick-like 195-pound frame. But he will play an important role in practice. And who knows? Perhaps he will even be called upon in a game.
Either way, Sealy will get to live out his dream, dressing for games against some of the most storied programs in college basketball. St. John's will face 11 of the top 25 teams in the nation this season, according to the preseason ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. That includes trips to Rupp Arena to play Kentucky, and Cameron Indoor Stadium to face Duke.
"I would like to get playing time, of course," Sealy said. "But at the end of the day, it's up to the coaching staff.
"This is crazy," Sealy added. "But I would love to get in."
The St. John's coaching staff sounds very happy with the group of players it has assembled.
"The crazy thing about all these guys is, as you can tell, they're a confident bunch," Hines said. "They're all really, really good in their own special way. They all bring different things to the table."
Much of the talk during the preseason has been about the three St. John's recruits who were ruled academically ineligible for at least the first semester: Amir Garrett, Norvel Pelle and JaKarr Sampson. It's possible that one or more of them could join the team in mid-December -- and they would certainly help. But St. John's is moving forward as if these are the nine players it will go to battle with all season long.
"We don't even worry about that," said Keady of the missing three. "We don't talk about it. We don't worry about it, it's just one of those things you can't control."
Last season, Lavin and his staff set one single goal for his first St. John's team -- to go to the NCAA tournament.
This year, with such a young, talented but shorthanded team, it's anybody's guess where St. John's will be come mid-March.
"We always want to get in the NCAAs, no doubt about that," Keady said. "But what we want to do right now is win the next game. That's all we wanna do."
They have a chance to do that Monday night.