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On Air: The Official Blog of WSJU Sports

There’s something to be said about the importance of name recognition. It most certainly isn’t everything, but, at the same time, it is nearly impossible to ignore.

With St. John’s basketball in the middle of a nearly 10 year doldrums, it seemed time to turn to a coach with just that: notoriety and the ability to draw positive national attention. Though he is years removed from the slick, greased-haired, comparably young man who graced the sidelines at UCLA, Steve Lavin’s name still demands respect in the ranks of college basketball. Where former Red Storm coach Norm Roberts failed to dig in his heels and attract big-time recruits, early indications are that Lavin can finally turn the tide.

During Robert’s reign, the philosophy was, use Roberts’ ties to Queens and the New York area to keep the fruits of the Big Apple in the city to star in the lights of Madison Square Garden. Though blue-chip players like Connecticut’s Kemba Walker and Indiana Pacers draft pick Lance Stephenson seriously considered St. John’s for a time, they ultimately decided to take their talents elsewhere, adding to the disappointment that has plagued the last six seasons in Queens.

Now, notice the stark contrast in the words of Lavin. At his introductory press conference, he expressed the importance of not only recruiting in the New York area, but reaching across the country to find the best players for the system and the program as a whole. And it seems that this was not just lip service. Just five weeks into his time at St. John’s, Lavin went out and got a commitment from supremely athletic forward and (might it be mentioned) Los Angeles High School Player of the Year Dwayne Polee Jr. of West Chester High School (CA). Not a small job, especially considering the fact he was able to draw him all the way from the West Coast in just over a month.

The big test, though, will be whether Lavin can recruit strongly within the Class of 2011. With nine open scholarships to work with, he is essentially building his own team from scratch. Luckily for St. John’s fans, early indications are that the right man stepped in at just the right time. As of August 28th, ESPN Insider Recruiting lists 8 players in the ESPN Top 100 of the Class of 2011 as being interested in the Red Storm.  In the dreary recent history of recruiting for the Johnnies, to have this many quality players even be considering coming to Queens is more than bright news.

A great deal of this success can be chalked up to the fact that Steve Lavin’s prior success gets St. John’s foot in the door when it comes to recruits. The previous strategy was to have a coach (Roberts) who represented the city, a man who grew up there and could speak from experience. But, on a countrywide scale, it failed. Many high school players see the Division I college stage as an audition for the next level. They want a coach and style that will propel them into the national spotlight and, hopefully, gain the attention of scouts. What richer resume than Lavin’s? Having recruited and coached successful NBA players like Baron Davis, Trevor Ariza, and Earl Watson, among others, he has gained national respect among many circles.

But Lavin won’t be alone. He smartly hired a qualified and respected staff to play the recruiting field. His first hire was Bronx native and former Drexel assistant Tony Chiles, a man who understands and can play the politics of New York City basketball. Alongside Chiles, Lavin also brought in his first player recruit at UCLA, Rico Hines, and a man with NBA assistant coaching experience, Mike Dunlap, rounding out a solid cast of coaches to move forward into what has become a tougher and more competitive recruiting field than ever.

Granted, this is the honeymoon period for Lavin. His team has yet to step on the floor this season and it will take far more than one quality recruit to lead the Johnnies back to the NCAA Tournament. But, things are very much so on the mend at the corner of Union and Utopia, and it will be very interesting to see how Year One unfolds.

– Dan Martin



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