December 17, 2012

Op-Ed: Realignment Effects on STJ Recruitment

The BIG EAST Conference was founded in 1979 with a core of seven teams: Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's and Syracuse.

The basketball world watched as the league rose to national prominence. The NCAA Tournament in 1985, when Georgetown, Villanova and St. John's all advanced to the Final Four, shed light on the competitiveness of the conference.

Behind St. John's legendary head coach Lou Carnesecca (1965-70; 1973-92), the then-Redmen did their part in helping to establish the BIG EAST as one of the nation's toughest conferences in basketball. Soon-to-be NBA greats-turned-legends Chris Mullin (1981-85) and teammate Mark Jackson (1983-87) helped their team to NCAA prominence in the program's last Final Four run in 1985.

In 2000, St. John's defeated perennial powerhouse then-No. 2 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, when the likes of Bootsy Thornton (1998-00) graced the hardwood with his hard-nosed play. The squad made enough noise to maintain its reputation as a national contender. To date, no non-ACC team has been able to notch such a feat over the Blue Devils.

Shortly thereafter, the Johnnies entered the dark times of its long history. Of course, when St. John's went through its own personal problems with NCAA and self-imposed sanctions, the Red Storm struggled to climb back to the position it had in the conference, tumbling in record standings for several years, and not seeing the bright lights of the Big Dance in the years between 2002 and 2011.

While St. John's was working its way back to its former reputation, the BIG EAST was beginning the early stages of changing its shape and form.

The BIG EAST realignment stages seemingly started to first take place in 2004 when Virginia Tech and Miami left for the ACC and, then, Boston College in 2005. It was at that point that BIG EAST basketball inhaled five members to create a mega-conference of 16 teams. The schedule became notably rough and rugged, but behind closed doors football logistics was the invisible hand governing it all.

It appears that the final stage of the fall of a once-storied conference is upon us. After the departure of West Virginia for the Big 12 this season, Syracuse (ACC '13), Pittsburgh (ACC '13), Notre Dame (ACC '14), Rutgers (Big Ten '14) and Louisville (ACC '14) planned to follow suit. Though the BIG EAST attempted to once again solve its problems by tacking on more teams - but far less competitive than those departing - it would ultimately signal the end.

"It was harder to maintain that focus, when many of the priorities of the conference legitimately had to be on football And, we supported that. We voted those football schools in over the last 20 years," said St. John's University president Rev. Donald J. Harrington. "But as we looked at it and as things were changing we said yes, if we're really going to control our future, shape our destiny and keep that focus on basketball which has so much been a part of our BE tradition, this was clearly the best way to do it for us. That's really how it all transpired."


Officially announced on Saturday, seven catholic programs, DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's and Villanova unanimously voted to leave the BIG EAST as a collective unit and form another conference. And, as a non-FBS football conference, reports say, the group will add similar programs (non-FBS) from the Atlantic-10 and other conferences to bulk up the competitiveness of the future conference. Sources close to the situation also say that the newly-formed group, having majority rule, will keep the BIG EAST name because of the brand behind it.

"In the climate in which we're in, it's very hard to have reassurances about too much, because things are changing so quickly. We believe at St. John's that it's important that we shape our future, rather than have it happen to us," said Harrington. "In this current context of conference shifting and realignment, we do believe that this move will put us in a stronger strategic position to compete competitively. That is so important for us as an institution and for our student-athletes."

Seemingly doing a complete 360-degree revolution will place the Johnnies at the top of the stack, making it one of the powerhouse teams in the newly-formed league. Though it will be difficult in the beginning with finding programs to keep other Red Storm sports schedules uniformly competitive, and even more difficult getting through logistics, the new, basketball-only conference will be a benefit to all on board.


"The rival schools, just because of the competitive nature of it, are going to try to build the argument in their favor and undermine the strengths of the program and we go through that every year," said Lavin. "What uniquely positions St. John's is our bright future because of the things that have been in play for over a hundred years. That's what attracted me to come out of broadcasting, it's what attracted all the [current] players . . . , it's what attracted the players who came to play for Carnesecca, [Joe] Lapchick and [Frank] McGuire. St. John's is tough to beat."

The impact on recruiting will heavily depend on which schools the new conference decides to add as members. Over the next two years, the ACC may become a stronger contender for nationally-ranked high school recruits because of the hard-to-match strength-of-schedule, as the conference arguably will be the strongest in the nation. The last thing St. John's needs is for the strength of its basketball schedule to get dramatically watered down, becoming a sapling in the shadow of a mighty oak.

In addition, some feel that returning to a similar situation as the upstart BIG EAST in the '70's will not carry the same projected success in modern times because today's average, elite athlete is more focused on the promise of fame - playing in big-time, nationally-televised matchups and, ultimately, fast-tracking to the NBA. However, despite these beliefs and the possible contention with ACC programs for top recruits, St. John's is still very "tough to beat" on the recruiting scene and will acquire top players both in the states and abroad.

This is due, in large part, to the hard work of Red Storm head coach Steve Lavin, who helped revive a brand of St. John's basketball that holds its own weight outside of the BIG EAST. Without compromising the integrity of the history of the program, Lavin touted the school's rich tradition, and coupled it with current strong ties to the NBA. Having had coaches that worked on the NBA level, a player in Moe Harkless (Orlando Magic/NBA) that is currently thriving in the league, a former assistant coach in Mike Dunlap now head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats, maintaining the New York Knicks' Madison Square Garden as its home-away-from-home and integrating matchups into the schedule with the Brooklyn Nets' Barclays Center as venues, Lavin is sure to attract today's top-tier student-athletes.

"I've been waiting for this moment ever since I could remember," said St. John's 6-foot-9 freshman big man Chris Obekpa after his first time playing at MSG. "That's one of the things that made me come to St. John's."

Obekpa was ranked No. 15 among centers in the 2012 recruiting class, according to Rivals.


"The decision to do this really looks to the future," said Lavin. "We feel it positions St. John's in the best direction for the long-term to create a stable position in an elite league with schools that share common philosophies and priorities."

Coming back to what the roots of the 'BIG EAST' were 23 years ago has many officials at St. John's hopeful. Not having to wait for the other shoe to drop, as dictated by the shifting red tape of football, will allow St. John's to focus on better basketball production and getting back to national prominence.

"I feel very confident about that," said Lavin about being a perennial NCAA tournament team. "We have all the things in place; the history, the tradition, the commitment, the location, the leadership from our president, board and coaching staff, for us to be successful for the long-term."

Once the newly-generated conference takes root of its own, the Red Storm is set to continue to its winning heritage and make the Final Four glory days a modern-day affair.

"We at St. John's are very excited about this. You know our history, you know the BE is very important to us. Twenty years of the BIG EAST as we originally founded it with the others. The BIG EAST with the football schools for 20 years - great success in those years," said Harrington. "And yet again, a new conference - whether it will be called the BIG EAST or go by some other name is yet to be determined, but we're excited about it because we believe we can now play a role in shaping something that is new and different in the world of collegiate athletics, at a time of great change. And, we're convinced this will be better for our student-athletes, and our fans."

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