Just about every story written around the time St. John's hired Steve Lavin questioned whether a West Coast guy could successfully recruit in the Northeast, but the former UCLA coach always believed that issue was overblown.
He admits attracting promising local talent will be important to his program's revival. He just doesn't believe New York-area recruits necessarily have to be the lifeblood of the St. John's program.
"I'm trying to duplicate the same philosophies in recruiting that I had at UCLA because UCLA and St. John's are both global brands," Lavin said by phone. "At UCLA we wanted to get our share of the best players from Southern California, but we also realized it was important not to be so reliant on your backyard that you end up suffering when there was a down cycle of personnel in your own region. That's the same thing we want to do at St. John's."
It's too early to judge whether Lavin's recruiting strategy will help rescue St. John's from a decade of mediocrity, but preliminary signs are very encouraging so far. Whereas 13 of the 15 players on former coach Norm Roberts' final team hailed from New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts or Delaware, Lavin has already made inroads on the West Coast and in the Midwest.
Uber-athletic forward Dwayne Polee Jr., the Red Storm's lone class of 2010 signee, attended the same Los Angeles high school Lavin once plucked Billy Knight and Trevor Ariza from during his UCLA days. Highly touted Class of 2011 point guard Jahii Carson of Arizona has said St. John's is one of the four schools he will visit. Josiah Turner (Sacramento, Calif.), Nick Johnson (Gilbert, Ariz.), LeBryan Nash (Dallas, Texas), Quinn Cook (Baltimore, Md.), Maurice Harkless (Queens, N.Y.) and Jakarr Sampson (Akron, Ohio) are also all top-50 Class of 2011 prospects still considering St. John's.
"It seems as if every quality West Coast prospect is listing St. John's right now," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer wrote Friday. "With Lavin's strong connections on the coast, I expect him to land some of these prospects. Lavin will also dig up some diamonds in the rough out of California similar to what Al Skinner did at Boston College. At the same time, Lavin won't ignore the New York City area, but will instead try to unite the best from both coasts."
What makes it especially critical that Lavin get off to a strong recruiting start is that St. John's has so many scholarships to fill. The Red Storm will have nine seniors on next season's squad, a double-edged sword that should allow Lavin to be competitive in his first season in the Big East yet has forced him to play catch up on the recruiting trail.
Lavin calls his first 120 days at St. John's the hardest stretch of his professional life, more challenging than taking over the sport's most storied program at age 33 or suffering through a 19-loss season that led to his dismissal seven years later.
When he abruptly replaced Jim Harrick at UCLA in 1996, Lavin lacked seasoning as a head coach yet he was familiar with his current roster, he had a recruiting plan and he didn't have to hire a whole new coaching staff. In his first four months at St. John's, however, Lavin has conducted a media blitz, hired assistant coaches and a support staff, assessed the strengths and weaknesses of his own roster and, of course, recruited.
"You're starting over in an unfamiliar environment, you've got to hire an entire coaching staff, you have no context to the current roster and you're a year and a half to three years behind on recruiting," Lavin said. "And then when you add to the mix that we have nine seniors, it magnifies the importance of evaluating and identifying and closing on a class of nine or 10 prospects."
The most pleasant surprise for Lavin so far is that recruiting hasn't been nearly as difficult as he expected it to be. Parents recognize Lavin as the young coach who led UCLA to six Sweet 16s in seven years, while teenage prospects are familiar with him because he worked as an ESPN analyst the past seven years.
Lavin's coaching staff reflects his vision for resurrecting a St. John's program that last made the Final Four in 1985 and last earned an NCAA tournament berth in 2002.
Bronx native Tony Chiles knows the New York recruiting circuit as well as anyone after playing for Columbia and previously serving as an assistant at Manhattan, Iona and Drexel. Mike Dunlap is an Xs and Os guru who adds more West Coast acumen after previously coaching at Oregon and Arizona. And 32-year-old Rico Hines is a former UCLA guard under Lavin who will assist in player development and serve as a liaison between the team and its coach.
When Lavin speaks to potential recruits about the excitement of playing at Madison Square Garden or the chance to return St. John's to its former glory, those aren't just empty words from the loquacious coach. The same arguments he makes to 16- and 17-year-olds are the ones St. John's officials made to him this past spring to lure him out of the broadcast booth and back to the bench.
"I wouldn't have taken the job unless I saw the great potential and the ability to elevate the program," Lavin said. "At the same time, I'm a realist and a pragmatist and I understand the mountain we're beginning to climb. There's no positive spin on 13th place. On the one hand I'm very optimistic about the future of the program, but I'm also well aware it's been 10 years since we won a postseason game. I'm not a miracle worker and I don't have a magic wand to make it happen overnight."