BY MARC RAIMONDI
It's been awhile since St. John's University was the No. 1 choice for New York City high school basketball players.The allure of playing home games at Madison Square Garden has been replaced by the attractiveness of huge, sprawling campuses with state-of-the-art arenas.The program's losing ways over the past three years have sent recruits to Big East rivals.A pending NCAA investigation hanging over the school's head has created an unsure future.”I think because [potential recruits] figure that other schools have bigger names at this particular time,” St. John's sophomore guard Eugene Lawrence said. “St. John's hasn't done good in a couple years. That's probably why. But me being a New York kid, I wouldn't really want to go far. People out there [in other parts of the country] don't know me. I'd rather stay here where all the love and support is. Make a name.”Coach Norm Roberts probably wishes all city high school ballplayers felt that way. But the truth is, they don't. The college basketball landscape has changed drastically since the 1992 retirement of Lou Carnesecca and St. John's is desperately trying to adapt.Brian Mahoney, an assistant under Carnesecca, was never able to succeed as head coach when he took over for his longtime mentor. He had a record of 56-58 before Fran Fraschilla took over for the 1996-97 season. Fraschilla seemed to have the program in the right direction, bringing in players like Ron Artest, Erick Barkley and Lavor Postell. He took a team that was 13-14 in his first year to a 22-10 record in 1997-98.But St. John's lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament that year, getting upset by Detroit. Fraschilla came under fire for having a bad temper and speaking with other schools with head coaching vacancies. He was eventually fired after he allegedly pulled his pants down in the team's locker room.St. John's hired Mike Jarvis on June 11, 1998 and he made the school's regime look smart right away. In his first season, Jarvis coached the team to a 28-9 mark and the Elite Eight, where the Red Storm lost to Ohio State, 77-74.Jarvis proceeded to win 20 games every year he was at St. John's except for one. He was Michael Jordan's choice for Washington Wizards coach when the former Chicago Bulls great became the D.C. team's president.Jarvis eventually left an indelible mark on the program – but not in a good way. The success in his first two seasons was owed to having Fraschilla's recruits. His alleged unwillingness to recruit New York City kids alienated him with AAU and high school coaches.When Charlie Villanueva, now a rookie with the Toronto Raptors, came out of Blair Academy, a prep school in Blairstown, N.J., his original commitment was to Illinois, in part because of Roberts' recruiting as an Illini assistant. The Newtown High School product eventually went to Connecticut after Bill Self and Roberts bolted for Kansas. But neither of those was his first choice.”Charlie went to Blair Academy just to qualify for St. John's,” said Nate Blue, a friend of the Villanueva family and an AAU coach. “He had it set in his mind that he was going to St. John's.”Instead he ended up with the Red Storm's biggest rival. Not all because of Jarvis.”He saw there was more in this world than just New York,” Blue said.After winning the NIT title in 2003, things went spiraling out of control the next season for Jarvis and St. John's. Willie Shaw, one of the players from Jarvis's first recruiting class, was arrested for possession of marijuana on Dec. 9, 2003 and was later kicked off the team. Ten days later, Jarvis was fired after the team got off to its worst start ever: 2-4. It marked the first time a coach was fired mid-season in Big East basketball history.”Recruiting is a bit of a gamble,” said Mahoney, who recruited McDonald's All-Americans Felipe Lopez and Zendon Hamilton. “You think you know what you're getting but sometimes it doesn't always work out that way.”The scars of the Jarvis regime still linger today, but were especially apparent two months after his firing under new interim coach (and former Jarvis assistant) Kevin Clark. Early in the morning of Feb. 5, 2004, six St. John's players were accused of rape.After a loss at Pittsburgh, a few players broke curfew, snuck off to a strip club and brought a patron back to their hotel with intentions to pay her for sex. The players did not pay; she accused them of rape. A video recording of the extortion on a player's cell phone allowed them to be released.But then the country knew of the players indiscretions. St. John's expelled Grady Reynolds because he had a prior offense-an alleged assault on a female athlete in a dorm. Elijah Ingram and Abe Keita were kicked off the team and both left the school. Mohamed Diakite and Lamont Hamilton were suspended from the team, but returned the next season, and Tyler Jones was suspended but returned later in the year.Keita made news months later when he made claims he was paid $300 a month to play by a member of the coaching staff. The school did its own investigation, found the accusation to be true and imposed sanctions: no post-season play in 2004-05 and the loss of one scholarship each for three seasons. The NCAA investigation is still pending.All of this was plopped in Norm Roberts' lap when he was hired April 13, 2004.”He's trying to build this thing brick by brick,” Mahoney said. “Norm is coming in almost at ground zero to try to build this thing up.”His task is simple in nature, but tough in execution: Keep city kids home.”You got to get one,” Carnesecca said. “One good one every year. Some years you get two. You get three – it's a bonanza.”Added legendary Archbishop Molloy coach Jack Curran: “He checks the areas all over pretty well. He knows what he wants…I think he's doing a great job. He has the program going in the right direction.”But the question remains when Carnesecca says, “I never had to sell St. John's.”Has college basketball left St. John's behind?A non-football school has made only one appearance in a Final Four since Seton Hall made it to the 1989 title game. Former city players are coaches at other schools and are luring high schoolers. Many schools have gigantic, picturesque campuses, arenas and practice facilities (St. John's just added one of its own this year). And the Big East adding five solid teams (one coached by New York native Rick Pitino) formerly of Conference USA won't help matters.Roberts has the team on the right path, but there are many factors that could prevent St. John's from returning to the upper echelon of college basketball.Yet Carnesecca is confident a turnaround is near.”That happens,” Carnesecca said. “[Even] the Roman Empire fell… It's been a little down lately, but that's OK – even the Yankees had some tough years. That's human, that's human. You're not going to be No. 1 all your life.”But will they ever be No. 1 again?