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Short-handed Johnnies usher in new era

NEW YORK -- A new era began at St. John's University on Friday night -- for the second year in a row.

Twelve months ago, on this high holy day of college hoops otherwise known as Midnight Madness, St. John's welcomed new coach Steve Lavin -- the former prodigy at UCLA, who became an even hotter commodity after seven years on TV with ESPN, hired to resurrect this once-proud but then-dormant program.

Last season, Lavin took a senior-laden team that St. John's fans had watched lose for three years in a row and led it to the promised land ... well, at least the front desk. St. John's lost its first game of the NCAA tournament, but had made the Big Dance for the first time since 2002.

On Friday night, the next generation was unveiled to a few thousand fans at Carnesecca Arena -- the players taking the torch from the nine seniors now departed, charged with carrying this program to the next cliff of the mountain.

The six newbies -- four freshmen and a pair of juco transfers -- received nice rounds of applause from the crowd as they took the Carnesecca floor for the first time, along with junior guard Malik Stith and former walk-on Jamal White.

Queens native Maurice Harkless got a few extra cheers, while God's Gift Achiuwa revealed a personality as fun as his name by displaying a few slick dance moves. That was followed by a passing drill, layup lines that turned into an impromptu dunk contest and a shooting competition with members of the women's team.

"It was definitely fun coming out, showing a little bit of our abilities for the fans and the people that are gonna be supporting us this year," said sophomore guard Nurideen Lindsey, a Philadelphia native who spent last year at Redlands Community College in Oklahoma. "A lot of people are looking forward to our season, and we're looking forward to having a great season for these guys."

And yet, the buzz in the mostly full building was as much about who wasn't on the court.

For starters, Lavin himself was missing in action. The architect of this brand-new squad was home recovering from the prostate cancer surgery he underwent just eight days ago.

Lavin is doing well -- "He's getting better each and every day," assistant coach Rico Hines said. "We want him to rest as long as possible; we're gonna hold down the fort for him."

His absence was palpable nonetheless. After Harkless read a statement from Lavin to the crowd following the introduction of the players, Lavin received a standing ovation in absentia -- the first and only one of the night.

But the coach wasn't the only one missing. There were supposed to be nine new players making their debuts. But three members of what was ranked the No. 3 recruiting class in the country -- JaKarr Sampson, Amir Garrett and Norvel Pelle, all ranked among the top 100 high school seniors in the country -- were declared academically ineligible for the first semester in mid-September.

All three players could join the team in mid-December, if they become eligible. Both Garrett and Pelle were in attendance Friday night, and while the media wasn't permitted to speak to them, Garrett tweeted, "Can't wait to be here in December!!!"

But for now, St. John's -- which will hold its first full practice Saturday -- is preparing as if it will have a very short bench, with just eight scholarship players. The coaching staff will host walk-on tryouts at 6 a.m. ET Sunday. The men's team did not even scrimmage for the fans Friday, unable to go five-on-five.

"It's a tough situation, because we expected those other guys to be here," Harkless said. "But we've just been working hard and just keep working hard every day, trying to get better."

"It's unfortunate, but that's out of our control," said Stith. "The only thing we can control is what we do on the court and how we carry ourselves and how we move forward. Our goal is to definitely get back to the NCAA tournament. We're not settling for nothing less."

Lindsey has set his sights even higher. When asked about the three missing freshmen, Lindsey said, "Those guys certainly would have helped us, but we don't hold our heads down because of the situation. We understand that we gotta keep working and continue to get better, because we have a huge goal ahead of us."

When a reporter asked what that huge goal is, Lindsey responded, "Um, winning a national championship."

A bold comment, to be sure, but fitting on a night such as this. Midnight Madness isn't about worrying about a lack of depth or foul trouble or the fact that the team could not even play five-on-five for the crowd. It's about making dreams come true. The first step of a long journey; one shining moment, with hopefully many more to come.

We'll get our first look at this team, for real, in its opening exhibition game Oct. 25. But on this night, the players' thoughts were in the clouds.

Tomorrow, they get down to business.