The Steve Lavin era at St. John's is going to start at the strangest place, at perhaps the strangest time possible. Next Tuesday, if you want to watch the Red Storm's first game, you'll need to tune in to ESPN-2 at ... 2 a.m. As part of ESPN's College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon, St. John's will play in California against St. Mary's as the second game of the twelve-game marathon. It's a tough game: St. Mary's isn't as good as they were last year, when they made the Sweet 16, but it's still a long way to go to play at such a goofy hour. Particularly when you consider that the Red Storm will then fly back to Queens and play at Carnesecca Arena the very next night. (And then they'll be in Alaska a week later.) It's a whirlwind beginning to what's already been a whirlwind start to Lavin's reign.
For all the excitement about Lavin's deeply impressive recruiting classes, it's worth remembering that the Red Storm return all five starters from last year's 17–16 NIT team. The team will have ten seniors back from last year's disappointment. In College Basketball Prospectus, St. John's athletic director, Chris Monasch, is quoted why he wanted a new coach for all those seniors:
"Nine seniors will comprise a mostly upperclass team next year, and we expect to have an extremely competitive year. Over the course of the 2010–11 season, we will also have to gain commitments to replace those nine scholarships, and we believe that success can be attained in the near future in building consistently from year to year, which will be the responsibility of a new coach and coaching staff."
That is to say: The real fun is going to come in the next few years, with Lavin's recruits. Anything that happens this year, it's just a bonus.
And it would be nice if that bonus ended up with an NCAA tournament berth. The Red Storm's best players are, once again, D.J. Kennedy and Paris Horne, and the key is going to be their ability to score; the Red Storm's consistent weakness last year was scoring, not defense. Anthony Mason Jr., who was ultimately a letdown despite (or because of) his name, is the only player gone, and Lavin wants the Johnnies to play at an accelerated pace. If he can figure out how to get ten seniors to play in entirely new fashion and ride it to an NCAA Tournament, the recruiting will look like the easy part.
So, can they get in? The Big East is good, like it always is, but not as otherworldly as it's been the past few years. St. John's will be fighting with Notre Dame, Seton Hall, and Louisville for that last Big East spot. ESPN's Bracketology currently has the Johnnies out of the tournament — and not even in the Last Four Out — as does Blue Ribbon. Gary Parrish at CBS Sports has them as a 12 seed, and Jerry Palm has them as one of the last four in. If Lavin can start his tenure taking Norm Roberts's players to the NCAA Tournament, St. John's may take off sooner than anyone could have anticipated.
How's it gonna work? Well, tune in at 2 a.m. Tuesday — 2 a.m.! — to find out.