Basketball Back In The Garden

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New York City is as rich in basketball history as any other city in America.  That is why many have deemed Madison Square Garden as the “Mecca of Basketball.”  Contributing to this history is the storied program of St. Johns basketball.  The Red Storm have the seventh most wins in NCAA Division I history and 28 appearances in the NCAA Tournament.  St. Johns was one of the most premier college basketball teams from the early 1950s to the late 1990s.  They produced two National Player of the Year awards in the 1984-1985 and 1985-1986 seasons with Chris Mullin and Walter Berry.  This success, coupled with playing at Madison Square Garden, made St. Johns a main attraction in New York City. 

The Red Storm would go through a significant drought following their birth in the 2002 NCAA Tournament.  Most of this had to do with NCAA sanctions based on rule violations.  St. Johns was convicted of giving a monthly check of $300 to an international player and providing him money to pay for an apartment off-campus.  As punishment for this violation, St. Johns was banned from the 2004-2005 postseason, and had scholarships taken away during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons.  This crippled the program, and under Norm Roberts the Red Storm’s best record in the Big East was 7-9.  St. Johns fired Roberts after the 2009-2010 season giving them a fresh start and putting the dark 2000s behind them.

St. Johns knew they needed to make a splash with their next head coaching hire.  They did when they hired Steve Lavin, formerly the head coach at UCLA from 1996-2003.  Two times while Lavin was at UCLA he had the highest rated recruiting class in 1998 and 2001.  He was also an assistant coach for the 1995 UCLA national championship team.  At the same time the Knicks, who had been just as bad as the Red Storm during the same years, had signed Amare Stoudemire and Raymond Felton.  The excitement around the Garden was high and people were excited for the upcoming basketball seasons. 

The 2010-2011 St. Johns did not disappoint.  Their record went from 17-15, 6-12 in the Big East to 21-12, 12-6 conference record.  They had six wins versus a top-25 program, four over a top-10, and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.  The Red Storm finished the season ranked 18th in the Associated Press Top 25.  They would lose in the first round to Gonzaga. 

While most of the players on that successful St. Johns team were not recruited by Lavin, he still has been successful recruiting for the Red Storm.  6’8 Maurice “Moe” Harkless played for the Red Storm during the 2011-2012 season where he averaged 15.5 PPG and 8.6 RPG.  He left after his freshmen year and entered the NBA Draft.  The Philadelphia 76ers selected Harkless with the 15th pick.  He was later traded to the Orlando Magic.  Guard D’Angelo Harrison, an incoming junior, gave St. Johns a lot of scoring in his two years playing for the Red Storm averaging 16.8 PPG as a freshmen and 17.8 PPG as a sophomore.  Lavin suspended Harrison for the final three regular season games, the Big East Tournament, and the NIT because of poor behavior.  He will be back to start the 2013-14 season.  St. Johns also has sophomore forward JaKarr Sampson who averaged 14.9 PPG and 6.6 RPG as a freshman and sophomore forward/center Chris Obekpa who averaged 4 blocks per game.  These players still have a lot of room to grow despite their early accomplishments.

Lavin provided another big recruit when point guard Rysheed Jordan signed with the Red Storm in April.  Rivals and ESPN rated him as a five star prospect.  Jordan is considered a great scorer who can get his own shot and attack the rim.  The big area scouts say he needs to work on, his consistency with the outside shot.  Jordan will immediately help the Red Storm because he is a big passing point guard, something St. Johns needs.  While he only averaged 4.3 assists per game, Jordan prides himself on his passing ability.  He says that he spends a lot of time in practice developing both his right and left hands, which will go a long way in being an efficient playmaker in the Big East.

St. Johns has given Madison Square Garden life again.  With there being no true New York college football team to watch, St Johns is the only chance New Yorkers have to root for big time college sports.  With the NCAA sanctions way behind them and Steve Lavin patrolling the sidelines St. Johns has the potential of being a big time contender in the new Big East.  Year in and year out Lavin has provided big time recruits to make St. Johns relevant.  It is safe to say that the Red Storm have been resurrected and will compete as long as Lavin is coach.