There have been a lot of good things written about the St. John's basketball program this season. And, if you're a college basketball follower you probably know these facts about the Red Storm: For the first time since 2002 the Red Storm (20-10) are headed to the NCAA Tournament -- currently, St. John's is predicted to earn a No. 4 seed; The Johnnies downed six top 15 teams this season, including four in the top 10; At one point, not so long ago, St. John's (ranked No. 17 in the AP poll and No. 18 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll) won seven straight Big East Conference games, which propelled the Red Storm into the top 25 for the first time since November of 2000.
St. John's is led by its first All-Big East First Team selection since 2007, senior guard Dwight Hardy. Hardy even earned the Big East's Most Improved Player honor; Senior forward Justin Burrell claimed the Big East's Sixth Man Of The Year; Steve Lavin earned Big East Coach Of The Year honors (oh wait... no he didn't. Notre Dame's Mike Brey did. How did Lavin not win coach of the year?).
Do the league coaches not remember last season? Did they get zapped by that mind-eraser, pen-looking thing from the movie Men In Black? Lavin did not coach last season's St. John's squad that went 17-16 overall, lost in the first round of the Big East Tournament and the NIT, which are both hosted at Madison Square Garden, the Johnnies home court! Nope, the name behind that mediocrity was Norm Roberts, who went 81-101 in six seasons at St. John's and received the boot after last season.
Enter Lavin, who was hired in late March, and had just a few months to teach a new system to an eight-man rotation compiled of six seniors (Hardy, Burrell, Malik Boothe, Justin Brownlee, Sean Evans, D.J. Kennedy), a sophomore (Malik Stith) and a freshman (Paris Horne). However, it wasn't learning Lavin's system, which relies a lot on man-to-man, street ball-like basketball, that was going to be the hardest part. It was learning how to win that was going to be the challenge, especially for a core of seniors that had lost more than won (44-53) during their past three seasons. Fortunately for Johnnies fans, Lavin reached the Sweet 16 five times at UCLA and knew how to teach winning. But it wouldn't be easy.
After starting the season 6-1, St. John's lost at home to the St. Bonaventure Bonnies, Dec. 7, and then dropped a road contest to the Fordham Rams, Dec. 15. What then seemed like a huge setback turned into a opportunity for Lavin to work his magic.
The Johnnies rallied to win their next five games, including three victories in the Big East Conference. The last win during that span came against the then No. 13-ranked Georgetown Hoyas, Jan. 3. After the victory, Lavin admitted that the two "tragic" losses to St. Bonaventure and Fordham were just building blocks.
"I think we learned a great deal through that loss (to Fordham), and as a result we're a different team," Lavin said. "And maybe we could have slipped by and made some free throws and somehow won that game, and maybe we win the St. Bonaventure game. [But then] I don't think we'd be 3-0 in the league because when you lose two like that, you really do some self-examination as a staff."
From there, St. John's lost five of its next six conference games, but the Red Storm were growing and getting better. I know, I watched many of their games. I loved their athletic ability on defense and, to me, Hardy and Brownlee were a solid duo to build around (who knew that in the end it would just be Hardy?). All the Red Storm, who at that point were 4-5 in the conference, needed to do was cut down on their mistakes at the end of games and they'd be fine. All of a sudden, boom went the dynamite.
Lavin snagged his coming-out victory against then-No. 3 Duke, Jan. 30, and then led the charge of seven straight conference victories. A late-season loss to Seton Hall March 3, forced the Johnnies to just miss out on a double-bye in the Big East Tournament, but a No. 5 seed isn't too shabby.
Not enough credit is being given to Lavin, who was willing to play any team at any place -- the Johnnies opened their season in Moraga, CA against St. Mary's on Nov. 16, then traveled to Anchorage, AK for a preseason tournament, Nov. 25-28, and in the middle of a Big East Conference play decided to play the UCLA Bruins in Los Angeles, Feb. 5 -- so he could build a cohesive squad.
Lavin now has that, and a team that currently scares the daylights out of opponents. All of this developed in less than 12 months of Lavin and six months of games. Roberts couldn't achieve that in 72 months. So, tell me why Lavin didn't earn the Big East Coach Of The Year again? Because I am listening.