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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.
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Saturday / January 19.
  • Johnnies to Face No. 1 Kentucky Without Lavin

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    During his tenure in high school, Moe Harkless dreamed of playing big-time college basketball games on national TV.

    After initially committing to UConn and then switching gears to attend St. John’s, Harkless, the crown jewel of Steve Lavin’s first recruiting class, will take the big stage Thursday when the undermanned Johnnies (4-3) visit No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena in the SEC/Big East Challenge.

    St. John’s assistant Mike Dunlap will coach the Johnnies while Lavin continues to recover from prostate cancer surgery Oct. 6.

    “I was at a lot of St. John’s games last year,” the 6-foot-8 Harkless said Tuesday. “They made me real anxious to get here and be able to play in these types of games. Kentucky coming up is going to be real exciting.”

    The Wildcats (6-0) will be playing their first game as the new No. 1 in the land after North Carolina lost to UNLV over the weekend.

    After facing St. John’s, Kentucky will host the Tar Heels on Saturday. That game was to have featured No. 1 against No. 2, but the Heels have now dropped to No. 5.

    “This early in the season it’s nice, but it’s not that significant,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said of the No. 1 ranking. “It just puts a bigger target on us. Obviously, not everyone thinks that we’re the best team.  Starting three freshmen and two sophomores, they may be right. I’ll be anxious to see how the team accepts the challenge this week.”

    While Kentucky’s 2011 recruiting class of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer was the consensus No. 1 in the land, St. John’s class came in at No. 3.

    Harkless was among the headliners in that nine-man class, but thee players — JaKarr Sampson, Amir Garrett and Norvel Pelle — were declared academically ineligible in September. Only Garrett remains committed and could arrive in late December.

    Whether players like the 6-foot-8 Sampson or 6-8 2012 Louisiana power forward Ricardo Gathers, who also decommitted, end up recommitting to the Johnnies could have a lot to do with Lavin’s health — or at least his perceived health — going forward.

    It is no secret that opposing coaches will use a coach’s health problems against him when talking to recruits.

    Former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden said he hid his prostate cancer in 2007 because he was afraid of negative recruiting.

    “When you’re coaching, you’re looking for some kind of break for when you can get an advantage on the other guy,” Bowden told ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ in September. “If word got out that Bobby Bowden had cancer, it’d have me dying on the headlines”

    Texas A&M associate head coach Glenn Cyprien said that opposing schools were using Billy Kennedy’s early-stage Parkinson’s disease as a weapon in negative recruiting.

    “Hey, there’s no question,” Cyprien said. “It’s a cutthroat profession in a lot of ways unfortunately and it has been thrown around a lot in recruiting in terms of coach’s health. Boy, you hate to see that but I guess that’s the way it is when you got some programs that use the negative recruiting.”

    Interestingly, Lavin has been out on the recruiting trail in recent days.

    He attended the National Prep Showcase in New Haven two weeks ago to watch Sampson twice. Garrett and 2012 St. John’s commit Darrick Wood also competed at the event.

    “Attending practice to take notes and share thoughts with the team isn’t taxing, sitting in the stands at a high school game or practice to evaluate a prospect isn’t taxing,” Lavin said. “Going to dinner with a donor isn’t taxing. At this stage of my recuperation it’s the game coaching that presents the biggest challenge.”

    And now the biggest challenge for Harkless and company will be taking on the No. 1 team in the land without their head coach.

    “His personality brings a whole different feel, but it’s still the same coaching style and the same information that we get from coaches,” Harkless said. “It’s just a different face and voice.”

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    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.