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Eligibility issues cripple St. John's; Who will step up?

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Midnight Madness isn't even on our radar yet and things are already heading south for Steve Lavin and his St. John's Red Storm.

On Thursday the school confirmed a proverbial gut-punch, as the NCAA officially declared three of SJU's top 2011 recruits, Jakarr Sampson, Amir Garrett, and Norvel Pelle, all academically ineligible for the first semester.

Along with putting a damper on all the praise that St. John's has been receiving for its impressive crop of incoming freshmen, it's safe to say that a bigger problem has risen to the forefront: The Johnnies are absolutely rail thin in the depth department. Bad news, indeed.

Leading scorer Dwight Hardy, leading rebounder D.J. Kennedy and top assist man Malik Booth have all graduated. Ditto for second leading scorer Justin Brownlee, defensive stopper Paris Horne and key reserve Justin Burrell. Worse yet, promising freshman Dwayne Polee Jr. opted to transfer to San Diego State over the summer to be closer to home. And when you factor in the losses of big men Dele Coker (6'10") and Sean Evans (6'8"), it really starts to become clear just how badly Lavin needed every last body he was expected to receive this season.

The only holdover that saw significant time last year is Malik Stith, a 5'11" junior point who has played 20+ minutes only a few times in his career. Stith not only needs to assume a leadership role right away as the floor general, but he's now being asked to help carry this squad for the foreseeable future offensively, and that's not exactly an ideal scenario for anybody involved.

If there's a saving grace in all of this mess it's that Garrett, the Findlay Prep grad who gets our vote as the single most valuable player in this class, may be eligible to return in December if he plays his cards right. At least that's what his father told CBS Sports' Jeff Goodman anyway. We'll believe it when we see it. As far as Sampson and Pelle go, the jury is still out, but anyone holding their breath might need to come up for air and shift their focus to the incoming freshman who are, you know, actually guaranteed to see the court this year.

Lavin knows all about turmoil from his days with UCLA. And he's surprised us before when most people have counted him out. But slashing a highly rated recruiting class in half, on a team that desperately needed Big East quality players might just be too much to ask. Unless this stable of youngsters finds a way to mature in a hurry, it could be a long season in the Big Apple in 2011-12.