Commentary

Lavin ready for 'surreal' homecoming

St. John's skip to step foot in UCLA's Pauley Pavilion for first time as opposing coach

Updated: February 4, 2011, 2:31 PM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The 200th and final nonconference game of the regular season involving a Big East school is perhaps the most intriguing matchup of them all.

Saturday, St. John's and first-year head coach Steve Lavin -- the former head coach of UCLA -- will be at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles to take on the Bruins, led by the man who replaced Lavin after he was fired in 2003, Ben Howland.

It's almost too delicious to be true. But the game was actually scheduled before Lavin got his new gig.

Regardless, from the day Lavin came aboard in Queens, it's been circled on many college hoops fans' calendars.

[+] EnlargeSteve Lavin
J. D. Cuban /AllsportSteve Lavin returns to Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, where he spent more than a decade as a head coach and an assistant coach for the Bruins.

On a conference call with reporters Thursday, after touching down in L.A., Lavin recalled that he first learned about the scheduled St. John's-UCLA tilt during his initial interview with St. John's athletic director Chris Monasch at Dylan Prime, a steakhouse in Soho.

"We just kinda smiled about it," Lavin said. "I right away thought about all the positives of getting back to Southern California because naturally it's going be an area that we recruit from -- the 20 years I spent here. As you guys know, I have such an affinity for the school -- 12 years in Westwood -- so to me it was just a real plus."

Affinity aside, things did not end well for Lavin on the left coast. After his team went 10-19 in 2002-03 -- UCLA's first losing season since 1948 -- the school quickly dismissed him. But before that season, Lavin had great success, by almost anyone's standards. He took over on an interim basis after Jim Harrick was let go in 1996, and at the unripe age of 32 proceeded to lead the Bruins all the way to the Elite Eight. And in the following five seasons, Lavin led them to five NCAA tournament appearances, including four Sweet Sixteens.

Nevertheless, Lavin said he understood why he lost his job.

"You've got the Green Bay Packers with [Vince] Lombardi, you've got the Yankees, you've got the Lakers, the Celtics with a Red Auerbach, the Knicks with a Red Holzman -- there are certain sports entities or institutions that are just unique from any other," Lavin said. "And when it comes to UCLA, there's only one coach in the history of this program, and that's John Wooden. And everyone else understands -- that's inherent in the equation. And so you're just grateful that you get to play a small part for however long it is in terms of being part of the great tradition.

"I was well aware, not naive, to the fact that if you don't deliver year in and year out at a place like UCLA, someone else gets a crack at it," Lavin said. "You give thanks, and you wish your successor good luck."

Lavin did more than that. He said Thursday that he went to dinner with Howland a week or two after Howland was hired, to give him "the lay of the land."

Howland spoke very highly of his predecessor on a separate conference call Thursday.

"I've known Steve for a long time, since he was an assistant at UCLA for Jim Harrick," Howland said. "Steve and I have always had a good relationship, and I think he's obviously doing a great job at St. John's this year. They've had some big wins, and have a very good team."

Now in his eighth season at the helm in Westwood, Howland knows full well the sky-high expectations that surround UCLA basketball. Despite the fact that he guided the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006 to 2008, Howland has faced criticism after his team went 14-18 and missed the Big Dance last season.

"Steve did a good job while he was here at UCLA," Howland said. "I mean, you go back and start to think about five Sweet Sixteens and some of the big wins they had during his tenure -- he did a very good job.

"I would hope and I would think he's gonna get a very warm reception [on Saturday]."

Beyond watching what kind of crowd reaction Lavin gets, the game itself should be very entertaining as well, featuring two teams on an upswing. St. John's (13-8, 5-5 in the Big East) is coming off a 93-78 thrashing of then-No. 3 Duke on Sunday, followed by a hard-fought 58-56 victory over Rutgers on Wednesday. UCLA (15-7, 7-3 in the Pac-10) has won six of its past seven games, after starting off 1-2 in conference play.

A few things bode well for St. John's in this matchup. First of all, this will be St. John's third trip out West this season (at St. Mary's, and at the Great Alaska Shootout) -- meaning the Red Storm should be able to adjust to the three-hour time change better than many other East Coast teams would.

Both teams will have to deal with the fact that the game tips off at 10 a.m. locally (1 p.m. ET), because it is airing nationally on CBS.

In addition, the experience factor is a clear edge in the Red Storm's favor. St. John's has nine seniors; UCLA has none.

UCLA does have two very good 6-foot-8 sophomore forwards in Reeves Nelson (14.2 ppg) and Tyler Honeycutt (13.0 ppg), who lead the team in both scoring and rebounding. But the Bruins struggle from beyond the arc; they are ranked No. 258 in the country in 3-pointers per game (5.3) and No. 228 in 3-point percentage (32.8). St. John's is one of the worst teams in the country, percentage-wise, defending against the 3, but that shouldn't be a problem Saturday.

Also, UCLA commits 14.5 turnovers per game (No. 226 in the country) -- so the Bruins could have problems with St. John's full-court press and half-court trap, which forced a good ball-handling Rutgers team into 23 turnovers on Wednesday.

This would be a résumé-boosting win for either squad -- both are on the Big Dance bubble right now. Big East teams are 159-40 in nonconference games so far this season, so the Johnnies should go in with some confidence.

But who are we kidding? The story Saturday will be Steve Lavin, and his return to a campus and a building he called home for 12 years. Lavin will have several family members, former players and friends in the stands. UCLA is even helping him out with extra tickets. But he'll be in somewhat unfamiliar territory; in all his years working at Pauley Pavilion, Lavin can't remember ever stepping foot in the visitors' locker room.

"I've never allowed myself to look forward and really begin to reflect on what it means to come back as an opposing coach," Lavin said. "But I think at the end of it, while there'll be that natural surreal element, bringing it full circle -- having been there as an assistant, been there as a head coach, and been there as a broadcaster, now to come back as an opposing coach kinda brings it full circle -- once that ball gets tipped up, I think coaches are creatures of habit.

"You get lost in the competition, and your focus is on the game and doing what's necessary to give us a competitive edge, and try to find a way to get a W over a very good UCLA team."

Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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