NEW YORK – Christian Jones was the last man signed in St. John's eight-man recruiting class, and it doesn't bother him at all.
Even when a group is considered special, somebody has to be last.
"It didn't affect me being called that," said the 6-foot-7, 222-pound Jones after the Red Storm's final exhibition game. "But I knew I came in as an underdog, the person nobody knew, the sleeper of the group."
Those descriptions may be short-lived. The native of Arlington, Texas, who attended IMG Academy in Florida, is expected to start this season for the Red Storm. He'll be part of a freshmen front line that looks similar to ones during years of national prominence in the Big East.
"We're normally on the court together in practice and that will make it easier for us to play together from the start," said JaKarr Sampson, a 6-8, 204-pound forward who played at St. Vincent-St. Mary's in Akron Ohio (the school that gave us LeBron James) before prepping at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire.
The third member of the freshmen front line is 6-9, 223-pound Chris Obepka from Nigeria, who played at Our Savior New American on Long Island.
"Chris does his work on the defensive end, grabbing stuff in the air and blocking shot after shot," Sampson said before taking a jab at his teammate who was 8 of 9 from the field in an 87-36 exhibition win over Division II Concordia, Ill., most of them impressive moves that drew wild cheers from the crowd. "And we have Mr. Highlights here doing his thing with dunks. There's a lot of energy around us."
The Red Storm, who finished 13-19 last season, will need that energy in 2012-13 season along with solid rebounding, some outside shooting and much-needed leadership on a team that is one of the youngest in the nation for the second straight season.
"There are a number of areas where we need to improve and both exhibition games showed that," said Steve Lavin, who is starting his third season with the Red Storm.
Prostate cancer surgery and recovery limited him to four games last season, but he says he is cancer free.
"One positive this team has is that it looks to hit the open man and make that extra pass and that's a trait you have to have to be a successful basketball team," he said.
The Red Storm were picked 11th in the 15-team Big East in the coaches' preseason poll. There won't be a six-man rotation like last season. There are 10 players who will see minutes entering the season opener at home Tuesday against Detroit.
The number could grow when two of the main recruits — junior college transfers Marco Bourgault, a 6-6 native of France known as a 3-point specialist, and Orlando Sanchez, a 6-9 player from the Dominican Republic who has a solid all-around game — are declared eligible by the NCAA.
"I wouldn't want to get into a guessing game or speculate when the decision will be made," Lavin said. "We have done everything we have been asked to and now it's in their hands to make the final decision."
Two junior college transfers could add some experience to a team that really needs some.
"How quickly do we mature? Can we become a more seasoned team by January and February?" Lavin asked. "If we do have that ability, we can do some special things."
One player who Lavin will rely on had a rough preseason, being pulled from one exhibition and kept out of the other. D'Angelo Harrison, who was selected to the Big East All-Rookie team last season, is the leader Lavin needs.
"He was on the bench and really had the right attitude," Lavin said of Harrison during the second exhibition game. "You could bury yourself, but he's come back with what any coach would feel would help him through.
"He's a microcosm of the team — boundless energy trying to be used effectively."
The Red Storm will have their coach for a full season. The freshmen front line allows players like sophomores Amir Garrett and Sir'Dominic Pointer to play on the wing and use their speed and agility. The juco transfers could make a huge difference offensively. Someone still has to step up as the precision shooter.
There are a lot of questions for St. John's. And some confident answers.
"There are some good players coming back like D'Angelo, our leading scorer," Jones said. "And our new guys are pretty good."