- Kieran Darcy, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- Dwayne Polee was brutally honest: He had never even entertained the thought of coming to St. John's until Steve Lavin was hired as head coach.
"Nah, it never even entered my mind really," Polee said.
And really, why would it have? Polee was a West Coast kid, the player of the year in Los Angeles, being courted by some of the top programs in the Pac-10. St. John's is 3,000 miles away, and has been one of the proverbial doormats of the Big East in recent years.
But on May 8, just a few short weeks after Lavin was hired, Polee signed a National Letter of Intent to play for the Red Storm.
"Some people thought I was crazy," Polee said. "But playing in Madison Square Garden, in New York City, in the Big East, for Coach Lavin -- I just couldn't pass that up."
Now, it helped Lavin in this case that he had a previous relationship with Polee's coach at Westchester High in L.A., Ed Azzam -- while at UCLA, Lavin had signed two of Azzam's players, Billy Knight and Trevor Ariza.
Nonetheless, snagging Polee was an early indication that Lavin and his staff have a chance to be very successful in the great recruiting rat race.
And the progress hasn't stopped there. Heading into this year's early-signing period that began Wednesday, St. John's had secured verbal commitments from five players for next season, and four of them were ranked among the top 100 high school seniors in the nation by ESPN Recruiting.
Four of those players officially signed Wednesday. The fifth signed on Thursday, and a sixth -- another top-100 player -- signed on Friday. That gives St. John's the third-best recruiting class in the nation as of now, according to ESPN's rankings, behind only Kentucky and Duke.
"It's an impressive collection, especially when you look at the wing guys," said Dave Telep, ESPN's senior college basketball recruiting analyst. "It almost seemed as if St. John's was in need of a statement class. [Former coach] Norm Roberts had done an unbelievable job of rebuilding the program chapter by chapter, class by class. But this was that breakthrough group of guys, that took a solid foundation and can push it right over the top."
Lavin, who had two No. 1-ranked recruiting classes and a No. 2-ranked class in his seven years at the helm at UCLA, admits being pleasantly surprised at how quickly things are developing at his new school.
"I wouldn't have taken the job unless I thought we could attract elite-level talent, because that's the lifeblood of any program, and you're not gonna be successful unless you recruit top 50-to-100 prospects," Lavin said. "But we are probably a year ahead of time in terms of the number of kinda high-level kids who are lining up.
"I think we're able to make up for lost ground because of the buzz around the program, and taking a diligent strategic approach, with a gang-tackling kind of effort from our staff."
Who has St. John's "tackled" so far in the Class of 2011? The top-rated player is Jakarr Sampson, a 6-foot-7, 190-pound small forward who ESPN has ranked the eight-best player at his position and the 32nd-best player overall in the country in his class. Sampson used to play for LeBron James' old high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio, but is now finishing up at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire.
"Jakarr is a long, athletic, skilled basketball player," said Lavin. "He has the ability to influence the game at both ends of the floor."
Next up is another small forward, Maurice Harkless -- 6-foot-8, 190 pounds, rated the 13th-best player at his position and the 41st-best player overall. But the most significant thing about Harkless? He's the first homegrown talent to stay in New York City and play for Lavin. Harkless is from Queens, and is now wrapping up his career at South Kent School in Connecticut. St. John's has had great difficulty convincing local kids to stay home in recent years.
"Maurice Harkless, at this stage of his career, is the most well-rounded player I've ever recruited," Lavin said.
The two other players who signed with St. John's on Wednesday are 6-foot-3 shooting guard D'Angelo Harrison (the No. 58 player in the ESPNU 100) from Sugar Land, Texas, and 6-foot-4 combo guard Nurideen Lindsey, a prolific scorer in the Philadelphia public school league who is playing this season for Redlands Community College in Oklahoma.
"D'Angelo Harrison is as dynamic a scorer as I saw in the country this summer," Lavin said. "Nuri is the quintessential Northeast basketball player, who plays with a hard edge and takes it to the rack as well as any player in the country."
Dom Pointer -- a 6-foot-6, 205-pound swingman from Detroit, and the No. 55 player in the ESPNU 100 -- submitted his letter of intent on Thursday.
"Dominic is a dynamic athlete who has demonstrated a propensity at the defensive end of the floor," Lavin said. "We envision Dom growing into a role as a defensive stopper."
And Norvel Pelle -- a 6-foot-9, 200-pound power forward from Long Beach, Calif., and the No. 71 player in the ESPNU 100 -- verbally committed on Thursday and officially signed on Friday.
"Norvel's size, length and athleticism makes him as critical a piece to our class as any," said Lavin. "Good teams are built from the inside out, and his ability to run the floor, rebound, block shots and finish around the basket will be essential to our establishing an interior presence."
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this collection of players is its wide range geographically. If you include Polee, Lavin has already landed two players from California, his old home recruiting base at UCLA. He has gotten a top New York City prospect to stay home in Harkless. Lindsey is from Philly, Sampson and Pointer are from the Midwest, and Harrison hails from Texas.
"I think that this was an amazing first step," Telep said. "Basically [Lavin] has put college basketball, and especially the Big East, back on alert."
With 10 seniors on this year's team, Lavin still has four scholarships to offer for next season. He's got a bunch of skilled wing players and a big man, but St. John's could still really use a pure point guard. Jevon Thomas, an exciting young point man and another local product, has also verbally committed to the Red Storm, but is only a junior in high school and won't be eligible until 2012.
No matter what though, St. John's will be a very talented team next season -- very young, but very talented.
Expectations are ballooning quickly in the Big Apple. But for a more realistic glimpse into the future, it might be instructive to look at the case of fellow Big East team Villanova, and what happened after it hired its current head coach, Jay Wright, in 2001.
The Wildcats were coming off back-to-back NIT seasons under Steve Lappas, although they had been to the NCAA Tournament in 1999. Wright was hired in late March, just like Lavin. He made the NIT in his first season with the team he inherited from Lappas, and then pulled in a monster recruiting class for 2002, including Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Curtis Sumpter and Jason Fraser. Still, Villanova only went to the NIT in 2002 and 2003 before finally breaking through and making the NCAA Tournament and the Sweet 16 in 2004, Wright's fourth year on the job.
Lavin knows he has a big challenge ahead of him.
"While I love the fact that our fan base is energized, I'm pleased with where recruiting is, I'm happy with what we're seeing on the court, I'm also aware that we play in as tough a conference as there is in the country," Lavin said. "And you're going up against Hall of Fame coaches and programs that have been rolling for decades. We're just trying to creep back up that Big East ladder, to be viable again as a competitor."
The journey begins Tuesday at 2 a.m. Eastern.