Monday, February 17, 2014

February Magic Has Johnnies Making Yet Another Special Run

Despite 0-5 start and skepticism from fan base, Steve Lavin has skippered resurgence similar to that of 2011, when St. John's ended a nine-year NCAA Tournament drought. (Photo courtesy of the Newark Star-Ledger)

When Steve Lavin was hired to replace Norm Roberts at St. John's in March of 2010, he came to New York with the task of restoring the once-proud program to a level not seen since the days of Lou Carnesecca, Chris Mullin, and Mark Jackson. Although the Queens institution had returned to the NCAA Tournament after Carnesecca's retirement several times, most notably a trip to the 1999 Elite Eight under then-coach Mike Jarvis and the artist formerly known as Ron Artest, the Red Storm's fan base, comprised largely of baby boomers who had been there for the team's formative years under Carnesecca's predecessor Joe Lapchick, still clamored for a winner.

Lavin's first season, with a roster of Roberts recruits, gave them one, as St. John's bounced back from demoralizing nonconference losses to St. Bonaventure and Fordham to play their way off of the bubble and into the field of 68 with resounding January and February victories over Georgetown, Duke, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, and Villanova among others before an opening round NCAA Tournament exit to Gonzaga. Yet for all the excitement and fervor in the Johnnies' rebirth, the fact that Lavin would have to replace nearly all of his personnel proved to be too large an obstacle to overcome, as St. John's struggled through the next two seasons with only an appearance in the National Invitation Tournament to show for turning what had at one point been the nation's youngest roster into an up-and-comer.

Three years after the first road to redemption was paved, St. John's is again bearing down on the door to the NCAA Tournament, and doing so after an 0-5 start to Big East play that has undergone a complete 180 as the Red Storm have since won seven of their last eight, a mere Doug McDermott three-pointer away from a nine-game winning streak overall, a run that has reached its latest crescendo in the wake of a resounding 82-60 victory over longtime adversary Georgetown inside Madison Square Garden. What's more than this is that not only is St. John's turning the hypothetical odds on the house after their lackluster start, they are doing it with a streak that turns back the clock to the aforementioned 2011 run, except the nonconference losses have been replaced by the winless start to the conference schedule, and the experience from Roberts' team has given way to a younger core eager to embrace their first major taste of success. However, what remains is the same surge through late January and February that gave rise to the belief that the Johnnies truly are destined for something special.

"We're different because we're so young," Lavin intimated after his team soundly defeated Georgetown for its largest margin of victory on the Big East ledger. "That team was old, and the challenge there was they hadn't had any degree of success, so that was a group that didn't have confidence because they hadn't won, and they were a hungry group and a close-knit group, but they had been beat down. They hadn't won more than six games in conference play in their careers, and they'd had a lot of smackdowns and beatdowns. That group was more about implementing our system and the players adapting to us."

"This group, we started completely over," Lavin continued. "We started from scratch. That whole team went out the door, (Dwayne) Polee transferred to San Diego State and we started from scratch, and then year two was a wash because I had cancer and missed the whole season, other than four games. So, really, we started last year. It's my fourth year at St. John's, but it's 18 months with this group."

Differences in personnel aside, St. John's has players with similar skill sets. Leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison is embracing the big moments of each game with what Lavin deems a "Reggie Jackson mentality" similar to the elevation of Dwight Hardy's game three years ago, while sophomore forward JaKarr Sampson is, in essence, a taller version of D.J. Kennedy, the Red Storm's irreplaceable spark plug of 2011 who was the team's leading scorer and rebounder whose torn ACL in the Big East tournament ultimately kept St. John's from reaching greater heights in the first year of the Lavin regime.

Just as he did when St. John's commenced their magical journey around this time of year three years ago, Lavin is again remaining grounded in his realist philosophy, once again reverting to the "hammer to rock" mantra that defined his maiden voyage at the helm of the RMS Red Storm to guide this year's congregation of greater, but younger, talent into the same type of winner that he envisioned would hit their best stride as the calendar brought them ever closer to Selection Sunday.

"I knew that (in) late January and early February, this was a team that could take flight," he said prophetically, "because it reminded me of some teams I had at UCLA, and even the team my first year (that) we took over. I knew with enough time, this group could be really special."

During this latest hot streak, Lavin has frequently referenced the first half of St. John's first meeting with Georgetown; one in which the Red Storm scored just 16 first half points before falling to a 77-60 loss, as this year's Fordham game from 2010-11, a contest at Rose Hill Gym in which St. John's blew a 21-point lead in the final eleven minutes of regulation, as the turning point that galvanized the team for the expectations lavished upon them in the preseason. Last night's Georgetown win may not possess the same powder keg that the 93-78 victory over Duke on January 30, 2011 did for the final five weeks of the regular season, but is comparable in that both were decisive wins against archrivals, and only added to the mounds of confidence already prevalent in each unit. Regardless, the man responsible for overseeing the development of his latest crop of talents is downplaying his success, not wanting to fill his young charges' heads with delusions of grandeur as the stretch run unfolds.

"I think the bigger picture here is a team that continues to make strides in a positive direction," Lavin proudly stated. "I still think our best basketball is ahead of us. We haven't accomplished anything of any significance."

For now, that is.

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