You have to go back 19 years for the last time St. John’s was successful with a roster full of New Yorkers.
Kyle Cuffe and Anthony Glover of The Bronx, Eric King of Brooklyn, and Willie Shaw of Mount Vernon helped the Johnnies with the NIT that year.
Nearly two decades later, St. John’s is flirting with the NCAA Tournament, and doing so led by four New York City natives — Posh Alexander, Rasheem Dunn and Julian Champagnie of Brooklyn and Dylan Addae-Wusu of The Bronx. And local coaches have noticed.
“You watch guys like Champagnie, you watch guys like Posh, you watch guys like Dylan, you see growth in their games from when they were in high school,” said Terrance “Munch” Williams, the director of the powerhouse PSA Cardinals AAU program. “They’re winning enough where you got to take notice of it.”
The quartet has made an impact in its own way, each significantly contributing. Alexander is the favorite to be the named Big East Freshman of the Year on Wednesday, keying St. John’s strong second half finish that has it positioned with a big run at the Big East Tournament to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Champagnie is just the fifth St. John’s sophomore to be selected as an All-Big East first-team selection after leading the conference in scoring. Addae-Wusu has produced all season off the bench, often closing out games. Dunn has made an impact in each of his two years as a secondary scorer, pesky defender and this season as a mentor to Alexander.
“This is what it’s supposed to be,” said Pete Wehye, who coached Alexander and Addae-Wusu at Our Savior Lutheran and the New York Lightning. “Back to New York toughness, guarding people 94 feet, and flying up and down the court.”
At his introductory press conference in April 2019, coach Mike Anderson emphasized the importance of keeping the top prospects at home. Nearly a month later, St. John’s landed a commitment from Champagnie, an unheralded and unranked recruit who was previously planning to go to prep school.
When Anderson got the St. John’s job, and hired assistant coach Van Macon, Champagnie’s mind changed about passing on college for a year. He was familiar with Macon and felt comfortable with the new coaching staff that made him their first priority upon taking over. Unlike other high-major schools that suggested Champagnie go to prep school, St. John’s didn’t just want him right away — it promised it would build around him. Champagnie was the start of the influx of local talent.
“He set the example,” Anderson said.
In early August, Dunn joined the program. By the end of September, Alexander and Addae-Wusu were committed to being Johnnies as well, again with Macon serving as the lead recruiter. It opened the eyes of Harlem forward Drissa Traore, who is part of next year’s recruiting class along with Long Island Lutheran teammate Andres Pinzon.
“They came to one of my open runs and were telling me they were looking to recruit New York City kids,” Traore said.
As soon as Anderson and his staff were installed, they immediately pinpointed a key to their first full recruiting class: point guard. There were several intriguing local options — Alexander and three more highly rated prospects in Andre Curbelo, Hassan Diarra and R.J. Davis. After his injury, Alexander’s ranking fell substantially. But Macon had followed him closely throughout his high school career and knew he would eventually regain his edge.
Anderson watched him a lot that summer and was convinced he was the guy.
“This dude,” Anderson told Macon, “is perfect for the way we play.”
There was just one issue. Dunn’s commitment made Alexander unsure of his spot since they were both small guards at the same position. Champagnie, who had played AAU with Alexander in seventh and eighth grade, assured him it wouldn’t matter after getting to know the coaching staff.
“If you do what you have to do in practice, you’ll play,” Champagnie told him.
That’s not to say St. John’s recruiting has been lights out. It has yet to land a top-100 recruit. It’s biggest get, in terms of beating out top schools, was junior college forward Isaih Moore picking the Red Storm over Arkansas, LSU and Alabama, among others. But, perhaps, Anderson and his staff saw something others did not. Champagnie and Alexander have performed like elite prospects. Addae-Wusu looks better than his two-star ranking.
“Nobody thought those guys would be that good,” a rival Big East coach said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They’ve done an incredible job [with them].”
The natural question is where does St. John’s go from here? Can this impressive season lead to bigger results in the years to come? On paper, the Red Storm look like a top-four team in the league next year, particularly if they find an experienced big man on the transfer market and there are no major defections.
Recruiting is the life-blood to any successful program. St. John’s has been able to unearth diamonds in the rough. Now it would like to start attracting elite-level talent that fits its style.
Williams, the AAU director, thinks it’s possible. Local coaches and players have been impressed by what Anderson and his staff have been able to accomplish. He’s been true to his word of giving players opportunities, and has come off as loyal, likeable, genuine and trustworthy, Queens AAU and high school coach Rob Diaz said. Their frenetic, fast-paced system is attractive. Results — wins and losses, along with player development — of course are significant.
“Guys who are highly ranked, they want to be a part of winning, they want to have a chance to get to the tournament,” Williams said. “They also want to have a chance to play a fun style of college basketball.”
Champagnie has noticed a difference in the perception of the program since his arrival. There is buzz and excitement. St. John’s isn’t just winning. It is doing it with New Yorkers that improve from season to season and as the year progresses.
“Kids from home are going to start looking at it like, ‘all right, more of us are starting to go to St. John’s, so why not go to the same school and be comfortable?’ ” Champagnie said.
For years, St. John’s fans have wondered why it could not keep top players home, aside from a few anomalies like Shamorie Ponds and Moe Harkless. This could be the start. Next year’s roster is projected to include five New Yorkers from four different AAU programs and three different high schools. More could be on the way.
“Nothing sells better,” Anderson said, “than guys coming in and having success.”