- Kieran Darcy, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- When St. John's took the floor moments before its exhibition game against Westmont College on Saturday night, there were four familiar faces on the court -- four seniors, all of whom appeared in almost every game last season, when the Red Storm finished 13th in the 16-team Big East.
What was new was the fifth starter -- the team's lone freshman, Dwayne Polee. And, of course, the man who sent him there -- new coach Steve Lavin.
Polee wasn't just on the court -- he was in the center circle, tasked with taking the opening tip. And as the freshman sprung into the air and tapped the ball to a teammate, you couldn't help but feel a new era of St. John's basketball had begun.
How successful an era will this be? Well, that remains to be seen -- and will largely be determined by how well Lavin and his staff recruit, and how those future players perform.
The goal for this season's St. John's team, stacked with 10 seniors whom Lavin inherited, is simple -- to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.
Some people will question whether that's a realistic goal. After all, St. John's went 17-16 overall and just 6-12 in the Big East last season with almost the exact same personnel. But, as evidenced in the team's 100-42 thrashing of Westmont, this team will play a very different style of basketball from a season ago.
Last season, the Red Storm averaged 67.2 points per game -- ranking them 217th in the country. This season they will be looking to run on offense at every opportunity, and often employing a full-court press on defense as well.
In addition, Lavin has pinpointed three areas that the team desperately needs to improve in, after reviewing game film from a season ago: free throw shooting (65.2 percent last season, No. 289 in the country), shot selection (42.5 percent from the field, No. 219 in the country) and turnovers (12.4 per game). Lavin wrote these things on a board on the first day of practice, and they have been points of emphasis throughout the preseason.
"These other areas are the reason we let teams come back on us [last season], that we didn't put teams away," Lavin said. "Because when all three of those line up at once -- miss a couple free throws, a couple turnovers and a couple quick shots -- that perfect storm is where a team goes on a 10-0, 12-2, 16-4 run, and you go from [having] a 10-point lead to down four or six. And you wonder what happened, how you let another one get away."
Indeed, St. John's led at halftime in seven of its 16 losses last season, including against No. 4 Villanova, No. 6 West Virginia and No. 17 Pittsburgh.
Lavin has also shaken up the starting five. Senior swingman D.J. Kennedy -- the team's leading scorer (15.1 ppg), rebounder (6.1 rpg) and assist man (3.1 apg) last season -- will of course start.
"[Kennedy's] kind of the hub of the wheel so to speak offensively, because of his versatility and size," Lavin said. "We've really worked with him on trying to become a better player without the basketball."
Also starting will be senior point guard Malik Boothe (4.9 ppg, 2.9 apg), who started all 32 games he played in last season. "Boothe is just great energy, great leadership, pushes the ball so well in transition, excellent ball pressure, just so tough," Lavin said.
Then, two seniors who started only five games between them all of last season -- shooting guard Dwight Hardy (10.5 ppg) and 6-foot-7 forward Justin Brownlee (6.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg) -- will join the starting unit, at least at the beginning of the season. Lavin said those two players have probably made the most improvement from last season to this season.
"Hardy is as good a shooter as I've ever coached," Lavin said. "[Jason] Kapono [whom Lavin coached at UCLA] -- from long range, obviously [Kapono] had Reggie Miller range. But I'd say Hardy is right there with Kapono, if not better in certain ways, off the bounce and creating."
"Brownlee, he's had a nice run here of really being disciplined and staying with all the demands that we've asked of him in terms of the weight room [and] the individual skill development," Lavin said. "He's as gifted a player as we have on our team in terms of talent. He's capable in a given game of getting a double-double."
And then there's the 6-foot-7 freshman, Polee -- the reigning Los Angeles City Section player of the year, and Lavin's first recruit at St. John's. "Polee needs to work on his stamina and his conditioning," Lavin said. "But his length, his size, his skill, his basketball intellect, his sense and feel for the game are really special and unique."
Lavin said after the exhibition game that his plan is to use an eight-man rotation, for the most part, during the season. Senior guard Paris Horne (9.2 ppg) and senior forward Sean Evans (6.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg) -- both of whom started almost every game last season -- were the first two off the bench against Westmont, along with sophomore guard Malik Stith (1.6 ppg). Also, senior forward Justin Burrell (6.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg) is expected back soon from a hand injury, and will be a candidate to crack the rotation.
Kennedy, the team's star and a future pro, is extremely positive about how things have gone so far under the team's new coach.
"We work hard every day, we bring the effort every day -- ain't been a day we haven't brought the effort, so I feel like that's been great," Kennedy said. "If we just keep doin' what we're doin', [and] listen to the coaches, the sky's the limit."
The schedule, however, reveals a chance of thunderstorms -- Lavin said it's the hardest schedule he has ever faced as a coach. St. John's opens up the season on Nov. 16 at Saint Mary's, a team that beat Villanova on its way to the Sweet Sixteen a season ago and returns three starters. The Red Storm will also face defending national champion Duke at home in January, and perennial power UCLA on the road in February, in addition to the daunting 18-game Big East schedule.
And yet, despite the fact that the roster is largely the same from a season ago, expectations have risen dramatically -- at least among the other Big East coaches, who picked St. John's to finish sixth in the conference this season. Lavin was asked why his team might be ready to make a quantum leap.
"Polee brings a dimension that we didn't have last year, because he's such a unique athlete, and his versatility to play four spots on the floor," Lavin said. "Then, I think it's the players that've improved from the end of last season to the beginning of this season. And if those particular individuals can have some breakout seasons, now you put that all together and you hope to be more competitive, you hope to start that climb north."
Right now, for the 10 St. John's seniors, the north pole is the NCAA tournament.
"It would mean everything," Brownlee said. "For the past three years, the program has been so down. That would mean a lot to us. We're working so hard. That's what we've been wanting. I'm pretty sure every senior or player on the team has been wanting to play in the NCAA tournament since we were yea high. It would mean a lot to all of us."
This will probably not be Lavin's best team at St. John's. But it will always be his first. And it has a chance to do something special.
These seniors aren't going to play in a Final Four, like Chris Mullin and Mark Jackson did. But in their final season, they nonetheless have a chance to place their stamp on this program and its storied history.
Simply put, they have a chance to commence the resurrection.
Coming Wednesday: Part II -- It Takes A Staff To Raise A Program.