Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEW YORK — Steve Lavin’s honeymoon at St. John’s lasted for more than a year.
After a disturbing early-season loss at Fordham last year, pretty much everything went right in Lavinwood.
Loaded with 10 seniors, they beat six Top 25 opponents, including four ranked in the Top 10. In perhaps the highlight of their season, they ran then-No. 3 Duke out of Madison Square Garden by 15 points in late January.
The Johnnies went on to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.
Lavin accomplished all of this while also piling up the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation.
But that was then, and this is now.
Now Lavin is facing daunting challenges both on and off the court.
His team features only eight scholarship players after three highly touted recruits — Amir Garrett, JaKarr Sampson and Norvel Pelle — were deemed academically ineligible by the NCAA.
The Johnnies could not even run a full five-on-five during Midnight Madness Friday night because Garrett and Pelle were in street clothes in the front row of the stands (along with committed players Ricardo Gathers and Darrick Wood, and several highly touted uncommitted players).
Lavin himself was absent from the festivities while recuperating from successful surgery to treat prostate cancer.
In his stead, Queens native Maurice Harkless, the crown jewel of the recruiting class, read a statement from Lavin that read in part: “Naturally, I wish I was at Carnesecca Arena tonight to participate in the Tip-Off festivities with our team, and celebrate the start of the college basketball season with our loyal fans. Please know our players and staff appreciate your support. I will be watching from home with great pride.”
Assistant coach Rico Hines, who played for Lavin at UCLA, spoke to the media and said Lavin remains in charge.
“He’s still running the team,” Hines said. “He’s just running it via text.”
Hines said he had no idea when Lavin might return to the sidelines. The first exhibition game is Oct. 25 against C.W. Post.
“If I knew I would tell you,” Hines said, referring to when Lavin might return. “He’s going to play it by ear. As he gets to feeling better, then we’ll start putting more stuff on his plate. But right now we want him to just get as much rest as possible.
“If I had a timeline for you, I would give it to you but I really don’t.”
Asked if Lavin was facing the biggest set of challenges of his career, Hines laughed and recollected some of the tough times in Los Angeles.
“Come on, man. We were at UCLA, man, ” Hines said. “L.A. is tough. L.A. is tough. I was on some teams where we would get booed, you know what I mean? Black uniforms at UCLA, that had never happened, you know what I mean. So it was always a challenge every year I was there. I was there with him five years, and every year they were talking about firing him. So every year was a challenge.
“He’s a positive dude.”
It is possible the Johnnies may pick up Garrett and/or Pelle at the semester break in December, but they still must play the first semester — including games at Kentucky and at the Garden against Arizona — with only eight scholarship players. One of them, Jamal White, was a walk-on before being granted a scholarship before the season.
Hines said the coaches planned to run practices accordingly by utilizing “dry running,” or five-on-zero scenarios, and not running the guys into the ground.
“It’s a tough situation because we were expecting those other guys to be here, but since they’re not we’ve just been working hard and we’re just going to keep working hard every day,” Harkless said. “Trying to get better every day and getting ready for the season.”
“We’re definitely going to hold things back, just manage guys more…because we can’t really afford to have injuries,” Hines added.
Sure, one guys gets the flu, and another guy gets injured and suddenly you’re down to six scholarship players.
St. John’s basketball spokesman Mark Fratto joked that the team was holding walk-on tryouts Sunday morning and would add a few more bodies before the season begins.
The honeymoon in Lavinwood is over.
More than ever, this season will present challenges for Steve Lavin, on and off the court.
**Johnnies need big year from Lindsey
**St. John’s Pelle says he didn’t decommit
**St. John’s freshmen trio declared ineligible
**St. John’s players in limbo
**Sampson to Brewster
**Sampson decommits, Garrett to Bridgton
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.