Addition of Chris Obekpa keeps momentum going for St. John’s

Jeff Eisenberg

Only a few months ago, it appeared St. John's might struggle to follow up the highly touted top-five class it landed last year.

Instead coach Steve Lavin quietly has erased all concerns with a six-man recruiting haul that has probably gone underappreciated nationally.

He re-recruited small forward Jakarr Sampson, one of the centerpieces of the 2011 class who originally failed to qualify academically. He landed coveted former Texas A&M point guard Jamal Branch via a transfer. And he bolstered a paper-thin frontcourt by reeling in 6-foot-9 shot blocking specialist Chris Obekpa and 6-foot-10 junior college transfer Orlando Sanchez.

Monday's addition of Obekpa was an especially significant coup for St. John's because the Johnnies lacked a big man capable of protecting the rim when the guards gamble for steals and get beat on the perimeter. Obekpa, maybe the best shot blocker in his class besides Kentucky-bound Nerlens Noel, chose St. John's over Big East foe Cincinnati.

Add the newcomers to a returning core from last year's class, and St. John's now has the talent and depth to perhaps contend for an NCAA tournament berth next season in spite of the departure of NBA-bound Maurice Harkless.

Branch will push returning guards D'Angelo Harrison and Phil Greene for playing time once he becomes eligible in mid-December. Sampson figures to step in for Harkless immediately at one of the forward spots. And Obekpa and Sanchez will surely both play right away as well in a frontcourt that suddenly has some size and depth.

The idea of St. John's contending for an NCAA bid next season did not seem likely as recently as a few months ago when the Johnnies were slogging their way through a 13-19 season. Lavin's health was a longterm concern, as was a series of recruiting misses that made it seem as though the program was trending in the wrong direction.

It remains to be seen whether a freshman- and sophomore-heavy St. John's team can have more success in the Big East than last year's team did, but the Johnnies at least appear to be in better shape than expected. Whether it's next season or the year after, they're on their way toward building an NCAA tournament contender.