St. John's Basketball: Will Kentucky-Lite Model Work for Steve Lavin's Rebuild?

Jared SmithContributor IJanuary 28, 2013

St. John's head coach Steve Lavin speaks to top recruit JaKarr Sampson on Sunday.
St. John's head coach Steve Lavin speaks to top recruit JaKarr Sampson on Sunday.Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

One-and-done recruiting: presently college basketball's biggest flaw.

Some say the strategy has watered-down the talent level of men's basketball, led to shady recruiting tactics and taken coaching out of being a coach.

The most notorious program using the one-and-done recruiting strategy is the Kentucky Wildcats, led by their slick-haired head coach John Calipari. Calipari has helped lead UK to two Final Fours and a National Championship in his first four years.

However, located nearly 700 miles northeast of Lexington, Ky. is a program led by another slick-haired head coach named Steve Lavin, who is using the same strategy to quickly rebuild one of the the Big East Conference's most historic programs—St. John's University.

Lavin, currently in his third season, has assembled a talented group of youngsters to help revive a program that was nearly dead a few seasons ago.

The Johnnies (13-7, 5-3 Big East), mainly made up of three freshmen and five sophomores, are currently on a four-game winning streak and have their sights set on a NCAA Tournament run.

This goal would have seemed crazy almost 23 months ago when St. John's lost in the first round of the NCAAs to Gonzaga. The loss, which was the Red Storm's first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2002, marked the end of the road for a handful of hungry seniors, including point guard and team leader Dwight Hardy.

Lavin's first campaign was seemingly a success, but the journey back to relevancy was at the beginning stages.

To completely rebuild St. John's basketball, Lavin and his staff—which formerly included current Charlotte Bobcats head coach Mike Dunlap—was going to need to put together one heck of a recruiting class that could keep the momentum going. They needed freshmen recruits that could play and be productive almost immediately.

Lavin and company were able to haul in the nation's third-ranked recruiting Class of 2011, which included guard Moe Harkless, a soon-to-be Top 15 NBA Draft selection.

Others who were part of the '11 class: the Big East Conference's current second-leading scorer, guard D'Angleo Harrison; his current backcourt-mate, guard Phil Greene IV; and forwards Amir Garrett and Sir'Dominic Pointer, who are each averaging 23 minutes per game this season.

A year later, Lavin was able to nab the Big East's current top shot blocker, freshman center Chris Obekpa; transfer guard Jamal Branch, who is a former Top 100 recruit who initially decided to go to Texas A&M; and four-time Big East Rookie of the Week, freshman forward JaKarr Sampson.

Add it all together, and the Johnnies have a roster of eight players who have no more than one year of playing experience.

All of them have helped the program earn an above .500 record in the league, a mark that's significant considering only one Big East team (the 2008-09 Providence Friars) in the last four years did not make the NCAA Tournament after finishing with a winning record in the league.

What might be more impressive is, come June, the Red Storm could send the same amount of players to the NBA than Kentucky, as Harrison, Sampson and Obekpa could all decide to go pro.

St. John's, fresh off Sunday's 71-67 victory over Seton Hall, may have more work to do than Kentucky if it wants to make a run at the NCAA Tournament, as bad, non-conference losses to the University of San Francisco (9-12) and UNC-Asheville (11-10) are hurting its resume.

But so far, Lavin's Kentucky-lite recruiting model of recruiting impact freshmen that can play right away instead of needing four years of molding is helping St. John's to a quicker-than-expected turnaround.

Instead of suffering through a second straight rebuilding season, the Johnnies are taking dead aim at their second NCAA Tournament bid in three seasons—a feat the program hasn't accomplished in nearly a decade.

Shady or not, the Johnnies, like Kentucky, are using the rules in their favor, and so far it is working.