Thu Sep 15 10:52pm EDT
In an effort to fill 11 vacant roster spots and generate momentum for a program that had been largely irrelevant the previous decade, St. John's coach Steve Lavin clearly took some calculated risks on the recruiting trail last year.
Those gambles resulted in the nation's second-ranked recruiting class, but they'll also leave the Johnnies shorthanded to start next season.
Wings Jakarr Sampson and Amir Garrett and big man Norvel Pelle, three of the Johnnies' six incoming top-100 recruits, were ruled academically ineligible Thursday by the NCAA's eligibility center.
Lavin said he's "hopeful" all three will be able to rejoin the team at the end of fall semester in late December, but that appears to be uncertain at best at this point. Although Garrett proclaimed Thursday on Twitter "I'll be there January believe that," Sampson reportedly is considering returning to Brewster Academy for the year.
There's little doubt that the loss of Sampson, Pelle and Garrett will be a crippling blow to the youthful Johnnies' already slim hopes of contending for an NCAA tournament berth next season. St. John's will have virtually no depth in the post behind juco transfer God's Gift Achiuwa for at least the first 10 games of a daunting schedule.
Seldom-used Malik Stith is the lone scholarship player from last year's senior-laden team returning this year, so the Johnnies will have only seven scholarship players to start the season. Even if Sampson, Garrett or Pelle do become eligible in time for the start of spring semester, the best-case scenario would be working freshmen into an already inexperienced rotation during Big East play.
For Lavin to land enough top players in his first class to fill his vacant roster and get fans and recruits excited about St. John's basketball again, he had little choice but take a few kids with checkered transcripts. The Johnnies hadn't made an NCAA tournament in nine years prior to last March, so they weren't consistently going to out-duel the likes of North Carolina, Duke or Michigan State for can't-miss prospects.
Even if Pelle, Sampson and Garrett never play a game for St. John's, the caliber of the seven other newcomers will still provide a good foundation for the program to build on the next few years. Furthermore, the publicity Lavin received from taking last year's team to the NCAA tournament and landing such a highly touted recruiting class has already made St. John's a destination for Class of 2012 and 13 recruits.
St. John's has commitments from Rivals 150 prospects Ricardo Gathers and Darrick Wood in the class of 2012 and is still in the running for elite point guard Kyle Anderson and highly touted power forward Chris Obekpa. That's another reason the future still looks bright for St. John's even if next season's promise has dimmed.