By Tony Mangia
St. John's capped off what is being called one of the top-five basketball recruiting classes in the country and, without question, the most anticipated in the university's history. Yesterday, head coach Steve Lavin got a verbal-commitment from one of the country's top big men to join the five other blue-chip recruits already lined up.
Norvel Pelle, a 6-8, 200-pound power-forward/center, announced his decision on national TV and said," It feels like home away from home," about heading to New York. The California product is the nation's No. 19 recruit according to Rivals.com and picked the St. John's over other premier schools like Kansas, Washington, Oregon and UCLA.
It might all seem to be happening too fast for Storm fans who have waited for the basketball program to return to prominence. Lavin is taking the fast track to better days and it can't come soon enough to the Queens campus.
Lavin has already quieted those who said he couldn't return the school back to it's glory days by bringing basketball to the forefront at St. John's. Depressed fans are once again excited about college basketball and the new head coach did it with players from every corner of the country--including New York!
Now with Pelle signed, Lavin has signed five top-100 recruits--an unprecedented feat for the Queens school. The coveted big man from Compton joins Dominique Pointer of North Carolina, JaKarr Sampson from Ohio, D'Angelo Harrison from Texas, Nurideen Lindsay from Pennsylvania and Maurice Harkless from a few F train stops away in Queens, New York--who all signed on Wednesday.
Rivals.com already rated Lavin's class the fifth best in the nation behind Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Arkansas before they signed Pelle. Not bad being mentioned in that company.
Pelle brings a qualified big man to the Red Storm, something the most of college basketball lacks. Pelle claims he picked St. John's because, "Coach Lavin is a very smart guy. He's a very smart coach. I just loved the way he approached the situation." Looks like Lavin's talk is smoother than his hair. "He knew other schools wanted me and he gave me space and also made sure I knew they wanted me," said Pelle.
Lavin inherits a senior-laden team which made the NIT last year. The Red Storm hasn't seen their name on an NCAA tournament bracket since 2002, but this year's squad includes the athletic freshman Dwayne Polee and is brimming with tournament optimism. Big East coaches picked the team to finish sixth in the conference and that would be good enough for a tournament bid. The buzz around Carnesecca Arena is now louder than one of Louie's old sweaters.
St. John's kicks off it's season with a nationally-televised 2 a.m. game at St. Mary's on Tuesday. Lavin would probably want nothing better than to fill up Madison Square Garden like the old days. Only now with Red Storm fans--who have been scarce of late--and bring some life into the dormant arena once again. He seems to be making quick in-roads to success.
"The way we build teams is by signing players who have competitive spirit, quality skill and basketball intelligence," said Lavin, "We're highly excited about the first wave."
So are Red Storm fans, who would be glad to have a product to cheer about. Echoes of teams past that would shake the rest of the asbestos from the Garden's rafters.