Steve Lavin's Return Spoiled by Loss as Saint Mary's Topples St. John's
After a seven-year absence from coaching college basketball, Lavin was back on the bench Monday night at McKeon Pavilion, where his new team, St. John's, took on Saint Mary's and lost 76-71.
Lavin isn't doing things the easy way, opening against a Gaels team that made a run to the Sweet 16 last spring, and opening against them in Saint Mary's noisy bandbox of a gym with an 11 p.m. West Coast tip-off (thank you, ESPN).
The Red Storm head back to the East Coast now to take on Columbia on Wednesday night and try to get their time zones straight.
"We put our kids in tough circumstances tonight and I think this is going to be a really valuable experience on a number of fronts," Lavin said. "It was a great opportunity under duress to see how our kids were going to handle that."
St. John's used an active defense to force Saint Mary's (2-0) into 10 first-half turnovers and 12 fouls and the Red Storm had a 31-28 lead at the half. But St. John's labored to score in the second half as St. Mary's, which returns three starters from last year's 28-win team, found its groove.
The Gaels went on a 13-0 run in the second half, paced by the three-point shooting of Clint Steindl - who finished the game 7 of 10 from beyond the arc - and St. John's could not get all the way back in the game, despite cutting Saint Mary's lead to five points in the foul-filled final minutes.
Freshman Dwayne Polee from Los Angeles led the way for the Red Storm with 16 points. Senior guard Malik Booth added 15.
"For our competitiveness and togetherness, I would give us an A-," Lavin said. "Our execution was probably a C-."
Lavin, coaching in front of his parents and St. John's alum Chris Mullin, gave the fans a little flash of the swagger he was known for at UCLA, picking up a technical foul with 5:50 to go in the first half. He worked the sideline with his play sheet rolled up in his hand, with mentor Gene Keady sitting on the bench.
Lavin said he was in "coaching mode" and didn't give a lot of thought about the significance of the occasion. If he was nervous, he wouldn't say. If it was just like riding a bike, he didn't really say that, either.
"There hasn't been time these first seven months to ever take a deep breath and step back," Lavin said. "It's just been a blur. So you are in the moment fully and focused on the task at hand.
"When I get to April, I'll be able to reflect on those things. Right now, you're just in your coaching mode where you are trying to win a game ... there isn't that time to step outside the situation and reflect."
Lavin is focused on trying to resurrect a program that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2002. He inherited a roster with 10 seniors (the Red Storm return 94 percent of their scoring from last season) and he's already working his recruiting magic, having pulled in the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation, according to one scouting service.
He's put the program back on the national map. Now he needs to coach it into a competitive place in the Big East Conference, where St. John's hasn't won a league title since 2000.
Lavin spent seven years at UCLA and his only losing season was the one that preceded his firing. But many in the UCLA basketball community believe that he never took the Bruins far enough for all the talent he had, with five trips to the Sweet 16 and one to the Elite Eight during his tenure.
The spotlight might actually not be as bright in New York after years in which the expectations were lowered. But if Lavin starts to win, it will start to burn bright and hot on the head coach.
"We like our team. We played in a competitive environment and Sant Mary's beat us," Lavin said. "I haven't changed my thinking in terms of our goals or where we want to go. As a matter of fact, after a report card like this, now you need to get to work."