St. John's heading into uncertain future

NEW YORK -- It's finally over. What a long, strange trip it's been.

The short-handed St. John's Red Storm concluded their 2011-12 campaign with a 73-59 loss to Pittsburgh on Tuesday, and departed from Madison Square Garden into a very unsettled future.

The early exit from the Big East tournament was no big surprise. Pitt had just pounded St. John's 89-69 less than a week ago and fielded a starting lineup with four upperclassmen.

The six-man squad from Queens, with an all-freshman starting five, fought like heck this season but was simply overmatched.

The Red Storm made one last rally, turning an early six-point deficit into a six-point lead, 26-20, with just more than five minutes remaining before intermission. But a 13-2 Pitt run to end the first half and then a 10-2 run early in the second gave the Panthers control for good.

"We weren't able to finish at the rim," St. John's assistant coach Mike Dunlap said. "We had a lot of easy baskets that didn't go in. And I think when we came out in the second half, that impacted our ability to play probably a little bit more intense. We let that bleed into our defense.

"The story was we had plenty of good looks; we just couldn't finish."

Except for Moe Harkless, that is. The Red Storm's star forward had one of his finest games of the season, with 25 points and nine rebounds, shooting 10-for-16 from the field.

The rest of the team shot 12-for-50 -- 24 percent.

"It's just tough when you shoot the way I did," said D'Angelo Harrison, who was just 4-for-18 from the field, 0-for-6 from beyond the arc. "Just one of those days."

Harrison, who like Harkless had a wonderful freshman season, averaging 17 points per game, will definitely be back next year. The big question now is, will Harkless be back, too?

Just an hour after the St. John's-Pitt game ended, a news conference was held at Madison Square Garden to announce several Big East awards. One of them went to Harkless, for being the Big East rookie of the year.

Afterward, Harkless was asked by reporters about his future, and whether he might elect to leave St. John's and enter the NBA draft. "I'm gonna sit down and talk to my coaches about it," Harkless said, "as well as talk to my family and my teammates, and we'll come up with a conclusion."

With Harkless in the fold, the future looks bright for the Red Storm. He and Harrison already are a potent one-two scoring punch, and will only get better with age. The other four players -- guard Phil Greene, swingmen Sir'Dominic Pointer and Amir Garrett, and power forward God'sgift Achiuwa -- have proved they can play some at this level and should be better next season as well.

Plus St. John's will have point guard Jamal Branch -- a highly touted transfer from Texas A&M -- in the lineup starting in December.

Head coach Steve Lavin continues to insist he is healthy and will be back on the bench next season, and sounds optimistic that he'll be able to land a few more talented pieces in the upcoming spring signing period.

But take away Harkless, and you're removing the cornerstone. He's not just a game-changer; he's a team-changer. His season numbers (15.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game) were mighty impressive, and a few of his individual performances were awe-inspiring (see: 30 points, 13 rebounds at Duke on Jan. 28). But he clearly also plays a major leadership role on this squad, despite being rather soft-spoken.

For what it's worth, Harkless seems very close to his teammates, referring to them as "brothers" on multiple occasions after the game Tuesday.

"This group is really special," Harkless said. "Nobody gave up on each other. Everybody just kept at it every day -- even on our off days, we'd be in the gym playing pickup and everything. I think this group has a bright future."

The offseason will be a fascinating one -- for St. John's and those who follow the program. But don't forget what was accomplished this season, whatever the future holds.

A team with essentially six players -- five freshmen and a junior college transfer -- and without its head coach won six games in the best basketball conference in the country. And 10 of its 19 losses were to top-25 opponents -- painful experiences, but ones that should pay huge dividends down the road.

"The seeds are there and the wisdom that was gained this year," Dunlap said. "Certainly we have steel girders in terms of the players that we have now."

The St. John's reconstruction project continues. Now we wait and see whether the most important girder is yanked away.