Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Lavin Bringing the Johnnies Back

This past offseason, a man came to New York City from the west to shed light on the basketball Mecca’s bleak outlook. Only months into his first season, he has become the face of a team that has not made the postseason since 2002. An already established basketball celebrity, he has taken his squad from league also-rans to competitors on the cusp of the conference’s upper echelon. In just his first season, he has already brought big-time wins to Madison Square Garden and laid the foundation for an even brighter basketball future in New York.

Amar’e Stoudemire? Nope.

Who then? St. John’s first-year Head Coach Steve Lavin.

Well, it may be premature to grant Lavin Superman status just yet — the Red Storm (12-8, 4-5 Big East) remain in the bottom half of the conference standings and are unranked in both national polls. And lest we forget, the Johnnies have suffered losses of 15 points or more to the Big East’s perennial powers (Syracuse, Louisville and Georgetown) and relinquished a 21-point second-half lead in a loss to Fordham — a squad that won just two games all of last season.

OK, let’s let the champagne chill in the cooler a littler longer.

No, Lavin hasn’t turned St. John’s into UCLA, where as head coach he led the Bruins to six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (including five Sweet 16s) and recruited seven current NBA players, most notably the Hornets’ Trevor Ariza and the Clippers’ Baron Davis.

What has he done? Steve Lavin has made noise in New York — and lots of it.

This past Sunday, Jan. 30, the Red Storm wiped the floor with then-No. 3 Duke — the overwhelming preseason favorite to repeat as national champions — 93-78. A sellout crowd of 19,353 was on tap at the Garden to witness Steve Lavin exceeding expectations in his first year in Queens with an upset that marked the Johnnies third win against a top-25 team this season (the most by any St. John’s team since 2001-2002) and the first victory over a top-five opponent since 2000, when they shocked the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

How’s that for a statement win?

With early-January victories over Georgetown and Notre Dame, St. John’s is putting together an impressive resume for an NCAA tournament bid. Not bad for a program that entered the pre-Lavin era with an 83-118 record dating back to 2003, including an abysmal 33-85 mark in the Big East play.

Despite Lavin’s early success in Queens, the transition has hardly been seamless. Last March, Lavin was hired as the replacement for the fired Norm Roberts, whose six-season tenure ended last March following the Red Storm’s first round loss in the 2010 NIT. Upon his arrival, Lavin inherited a team that was hardly his own; the lopsided St. John’s roster featured 10 rising seniors.

Ten players who had played three seasons together under Roberts; 10 players who had bonded together through tough times and losing seasons; 10 players who, with just one year left until graduation, were not about to change everything they knew about themselves and St. John’s basketball to keep some hot-shot, slick-haired ESPN analyst from looking like a fool.

Judging from this past weekend, however, it seems St. John’s is speaking Lavin’s language.

It was those same, formerly skeptical seniors that put on a 40-minute clinic against the defending national champions on Sunday. Senior Dwight Hardy, the team’s leading scorer this season, posted 26 points on 9-of-13 shooting and played all 40 minutes. Fellow senior Justin Brownlee netted 20 points of his own.

Team defense was the key to victory, though, as the Johnnies held the sharpshooting Blue Devils to 1-of-13 shooting from beyond the arc in the first half.

The win epitomized a collective effort: 15 men, all buying the same stock, and 10 seniors, all putting their egos aside.

With a team comprised predominately of upperclassmen, one could argue that this team is not really Lavin’s, as he did not recruit these players. By the same token, their imminent graduation means they won’t be his for long, either. Despite the radical transformation the Red Storm will undergo after this season, they are poised to be even better in 2011-2012. Thanks in large part to his seven-plus years on television, Lavin has managed to make his first recruiting class at St. John’s nothing short of remarkable. Headlined by small forwards Dom Pointer (Quality Education Academy, N.C.) and Jakarr Sampson (Brewster Academy, N.H.), the Johnnies 2011 class features six players from the ESPNU 100 and is the nation’s No. 2-ranked class.

With a remaining schedule that features UConn, Pitt and Villanova, St. John’s will have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves as a force in the Big East.

When asked after his team’s win over Duke how he would assess the Red Storm’s chances for an NCAA tournament bid if he were still an analyst, Lavin told, “What I would say … is they’ve got to keep winning games. They’ve got to keep making progress. It’s up to St. John’s to determine their destiny.”

With Lavin running the show, the outlook is bright.

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