St. John's G could emerge as one of the top shooting guards in the conference after the departure of 2012 Big East Rookie of the Year Maurice Harkless. (US Presswire)

Preview: St. John’s Red Storm

Last year: 13-19 overall, 6-12 Big East (tied-11th), didn’t qualify for the postseason

Coach: Steve Lavin (3rd year, 23-14; 10 years, 145-77)

Projected starters: PG Phil Greene, Soph. (7.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 3.0 apg); SG D’Angelo Harrison , Soph. (17.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.1 apg); SF Sir Dominic Pointer, Soph. (6.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.5 apg); PF Amir Garrett, Soph. (7.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.1 apg); F God’sgift Achiuwa, Sr. (9.4 ppg. 5.8 rpg, 0.3 apg).

Top newcomers: C Chris Obekpa -- The 6-9 freshman is a springy leaper who can help a Red Storm defense that ranked 10th in the Big East last season in block percentage (6.3). Obekpa’s ability to run the floor may remind Lavin followers of former UCLA C Dan Gadzuric, who flourished in Lavin’s up-tempo offense at UCLA. Obekpa ranked No. 15 among centers and No. 58 overall in the Rivals 150 Class of 2012. Jamal Branch, a transfer from Texas A&M, is regarded for his perimeter defense and could push Greene for time at the point. JaKarr Sampson and Orlando Sanchez could provide St. John’s with depth up front. Sampson, who attended LeBron James’ former high school in Akron, Ohio, has a slashing style reminiscent of former UNLV F Stacey Augmon.

Key loss: The loss of F Maurice Harkless will provide a void. With a 7-0 wingspan and 37-inch vertical leap, Harkless wowed scouts with his athleticism during pre-NBA Draft workouts. The absence of the 2012 Big East Rookie of the Year will be noticeable on fast breaks.

What you need to know: Lavin returns after coaching in only four games last season. The third-year Red Storm coach is fully-healthy after undergoing prostate cancer surgery last October. St. John’s could look to run more than any team in the league besides DePaul. The Red Storm had 70 possessions or more 11 times last season, including 85 in a January loss to Villanova. St. John’s will be one of the youngest teams in the country. Lavin’s rotation could be comprised of three freshmen, four sophomores, a junior and a senior. The Red Storm have seven newcomers on the roster. 

Mark the calendar:

• Nov. 16 vs. Murray State (Charleston Classic, Charleston, S.C.): There’s a good chance the Racers and the Red Storm could meet if St. John’s defeats Charleston a night earlier. Harrison could face a daunting challenge in slowing Murray State G Isaiah Canaan, a First Team AP Preseason All-American.

• Jan. 5 at Cincinnati: The Red Storm won a bitter recruiting battle with the Bearcats to land Obekpa. The lanky forward appeared headed to Cincinnati, but decided to attend school in Queens at the last minute. Expect Obekpa to receive a hostile reception at Fifth Third Arena.

• Feb. 10 vs. Syracuse: It will be the last regular season meeting between the longtime members of the Big East before Syracuse leaves for the ACC next season. The Syracuse-St. John’s rivalry reached its peak in the early 1980s when former St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca received Big East Coach of the Year honors in 1983 and 1985. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim captured the award for the first time in 1984.

Biggest question: Can some of the newcomers, Obekpa and Sampson in particular, help shore up a thin frontline? The Red Storm finished 15th in the Big East in 2011-2012 in rebounding margin (minus-3.7 per game). During a midseason stretch when St. John’s lost six of seven games, the Red Storm were outrebounded by nearly seven boards a game (40.2-33.5). Villanova dominated the boards in a 79-76 win, pulling down 52 rebounds.

Best-case scenario: Harrison continues to provide a threat with his long-range shooting and materializes into one of the league’s top scorers. He’s complemented by Garrett, an athletic wing, who is able to take on a greater role with Harkless gone. The newcomers mature and St. John’s sneaks into the NCAA Tournament.

Worst-case scenario: It’s a learning season for Lavin’s young team which is again beset by a low assist to turnover ratio. The Red Storm are unable to find a leader at point guard between Greene and Branch. Lavin’s team begins to unravel during a tough stretch early in February. St. John’s season ends at Madison Square Garden early in the Big East Tournament.

Reality: St. John’s opens well against a relatively soft non-conference schedule. The Red Storm suffer some growing pains, but also pull off a few upsets in the regular season. After seeing its bubble burst, St. John’s earns a spot in the NIT.

Season opens: vs. Detroit, Nov. 13, 2 p.m. ET (ESPN)

For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis on the Big East, follow bloggers Evan Hilbert and Matt Rybaltowski @CBSBigEast.