Despite daunting obstacles, Lavin hitting recruiting trail hard
Second-year coach serving in self-described "general manager role"
NEW YORK -- For the second year in a row, Steve Lavin and St. John's are conducting perhaps the most unique recruiting search of any Division 1 basketball program in the nation.
A year ago, Lavin inherited a club with 10 seniors and had the unenviable burden of trying to fill nearly an entire roster with new players.
Lavin and his staff hit the road and landed a nine-man recruiting class ranked among the Top 3 nationally, but three recruits -- JaKarr Sampson, Norvel Pelle and Amir Garrett -- were ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA in September. (Garrett has since qualified and joined the team.)
Lavin may not return to coaching until the 2012-13 season as he recovers from prostate cancer surgery in October. Yet he is still out recruiting, operating in a self-described "general manager role," and seeks to sign five or six more players in the spring period.
"It’s clear I’m going to come back [as head coach at St. John's],” he told SNY during a recent interview. “I’ll be back at some point.”
St. John's also lost junior college point guard Nurideen Lindsey, who first announced he would transfer to Arkansas and has now decided on Rider. The Red Storm did land a replacement for Lindsey in former Texas A&M floor general Jamal Branch, who, ironically, was part of the team that beat the Johnnies at Madison Square Garden in November when Lindsey missed two free throws in the final seconds. A freshman, Branch will be eligible to play in December.
On top of all that, two 2012 commits, power forward Ricardo Gathers and shooting guard Darrick Wood, both decommitted and re-opened their recruitments.
"He just felt like it wasn't the time," the 6-foot-8 Gathers told FiveStarBasketball.com of Wood. "If that's what he wanted to do, I don't blame him."
Lavin and a St. John's team with only seven recruited scholarship players are in a bit of a catch-22 situation.On the one hand, they need to do well on the court this season in order to attract talented players from the Class of 2012 and beyond. After Wednesday's loss at South Florida, the Johnnies are 8-10, 2-5 in the Big East.
On the other hand, they need more talent in order to compete in the brutal Big East.
"They got a lot of work to do right now," Gathers told FiveStarBasketball.com. "But they are missing a lot of players right now. We'll see who goes there next year and hopefully, I'm one of them but if not, best of luck to them."
Lavin's own health situation has complicated the situation for some recruits, including Gathers, who is considering Baylor, N.C. State and Florida along with St. John's.
Branch is friendly with Gathers and told SNY.tv he will try to persuade him to come to St. John's, but there are no guarantees.
“I think Ricardo understands and empathizes with Coach Lavin’s condition and he understands it but to say it didn’t have an impact on Ricardo’s decision to open it back up would be disingenuous,” Riverside (La.) Reserve coach Timmy Byrd said.
“I think it definitely has an impact. Him not being on the sidelines, it’s a big question mark about his health.
“I think everybody’s hoping that his health is going to turn out to be OK but we still don’t know."
Still, Lavin has worked tirelessly to round up players for 2012.
He was at the Hoophall Classic at the Hall of Fame this past weekend where he watched several targets, including 2012 forward Chris Obekpa and 2012 wing Felix Balamou of Our Savior New American on Long Island and JaKarr Sampson of Brewster (N.H.) Academy.
St. John's will be competing against some heavy hitters for both. UConn coach Jim Calhoun was also at the Hall of Fame for the 6-foot-9, shot-blocking Obekpa, and Providence, Cincinnati, Seton Hall and others are also involved.
Sampson's AAU coach, Don Anderson, said St. John's is one of five schools working hardest on the 6-8 Sampson, along with Kansas, Providence, Baylor and Florida.
Sampson said he likely won't decide until after the Final Four.
St. John's and UConn have also recently offered scholarships to Winston Shepard, a 6-9 wing from Findlay Prep, the same school that produced St. John's Garrett.
"[St. John's] told me they have a young team and only seven scholarship players so playing time is wide open," Shepard told Five Star.
Shepard does know St. John's freshman guard D'Angelo Harrison, who is also friendly with Branch.
"My boy from Houston goes to St. John's, D'Angelo," Shepard said. "I might have to entertain that."
Shepard previously had a final five of New Mexico, Oklahoma State, San Diego State, UNLV, and UTEP, and is now in a wait-and-see mode.
"I'm not leaning one way or another," Shepard said. "I'm playing ear by ear with everybody."
Shepard scored 16 points with five rebounds and four assists when Findlay beat Chicago Simeon, then No. 3 in the Five Star Power Rankings, Monday at the Hoophall.
"Winston is a 6-9 wing who can guard the one through the five," Findlay assistant Todd Simon told Five Star.
"He's drawn Marcus Smart, Demarquise Johnson and Jabari Parker on defensive assignments and I think he's separated himself as the elite defensive wing in that class.
"He has a chance to break Findlay's career rebounding record and could set the single-season mark in assists this year. He will be an impact player early next year.
"He's the rare high school player who doesn't need the basketball to be an impact player. He's vastly under appreciated in rankings for that reason but for that reason he has a better shot at making it beyond the next level."
Lavin has also been scouring the New York metropolitan area recently, watching 6-9 Monroe (N.Y.) College forward Orlando Sanchez on several occasions, although no formal offer has been made.
Sanchez is averaging 10.1 points and and 8.0 rebounds for Monroe, No. 6 in the nation.
"Coach Lavin was at our game on Tuesday," Monroe assistant Brock Erickson told Five Star. "When Orlando plays hard, he can change the game on the defensive end with his rebounding and shot-blocking ability. He can run and loves to get out in transition to catch highlight reel dunks."
The Johnnies will need to land several of these players in order to add to their seven-man roster and compete in the Big East going forward.
While negative recruiting and haters are part of the business, count current Knicks and former UCLA point guard Baron Davis among those who believe Lavin will get it done.
“You can’t recruit against Lav," Davis told SNY.tv. "Lav is special. He’s the type of coach you want to play for.”
Harrison Sanford is a reporter for Fivestarbasketball.com. Follow him Twitter: @HarrisonSanford