The St. John’s University men’s basketball team may be short-handed with just eight scholarship student-athletes on the roster, but the common goal of replicating last year’s NCAA tournament appearance remains atop the list of priorities for the six first-year players, one returning letter winner, and a former walk-on that will open the 104th season of Red Storm hoops on November 7th as the youngest squad in program history.
Malik Stith, who enters his junior season as the last man standing from both last year’s core of players and the Norm Roberts era, has taken on the responsibility of serving as a mentor to the rookies.
“I’m trying to make them as comfortable as possible,” said Stith, prior to last night’s annual Red Storm Tip Off. “This is like a ‘super’ AAU team. There’s so much talent.”
As talented as the Red Storm may be, they were dealt another blow during the offseason when head coach Steve Lavin was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The coach underwent a successful surgery to combat the affliction nine days ago, and is on the road to recovery.
In his absence, a prepared statement from the coach was read to a sellout crowd at Carnesecca Arena by freshman forward Moe Harkless; and the crowd sang along to the classic Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’” when Lavin’s name was announced.
“We’re waiting for the day that he comes back,” said Malik Stith. “That’s our leader.”
Lavin’s team will be run primarily by assistant coaches Mike Dunlap and Rico Hines, but Lavin still wields considerable influence in practice.
“It’s his program,” said Hines, who played for Lavin at UCLA. “Whatever he wants, he gets.”
Hines declined to give a return date for Lavin, but did state that the coach, “won’t stop texting me. He’s getting better each and every day. He’s going to play it by ear.”
When asked about the pressure of competing with just eight players for the first two months of the season, Hines admitted the inherent difficulty in preparation; but remained optimistic about what lies ahead.
“We can’t run them into the ground,” he said. “We’re going to have to be smart.”
Sophomore point guard Nurideen Lindsey reinforced the team-first concept that last year’s group of players came to embody under Lavin. “The guys understand that we have to pick up and force ourselves to get better each day,” said a visibly-confident Lindsey. “No one player in this class was recruited to do something individually. Winning is the big picture.”
St. John’s seems to be talking the talk amid the adversity they have had to face since they arrived on the corner of Union and Utopia. All that remains to be seen is how well they can walk the walk when they take the court three weeks from Monday for the opening tip of the 2011-12 season.