Commentary

St. John's managing recent triumphs

In the midst of joining the Top 25, Steve Lavin is doing his best not to change a thing

Updated: February 23, 2011, 3:37 PM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- St. John's is nationally ranked this week for the first time in more than a decade, but first-year coach Steve Lavin is not changing his approach one bit.

In fact, on Monday -- the same day on which both the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today Coaches polls were released with St. John's included, marking the first time the Red Storm were listed on either one since Nov. 28, 2000 -- Lavin placed a copy of a poem in each of his players' lockers.

The poem was Rudyard Kipling's "If" and Lavin -- whose father is a longtime English teacher -- has given copies to his players three times now, including at the beginning of the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Lavin
AP Photo/Al BehrmanSteve Lavin is using poetry, among other things, to inspire his team.

The most famous line of the poem also appears over the players' entrance to Centre Court at Wimbledon:

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same"

"That's a great one, in terms of balance, in terms of managing both triumph and tragedy," Lavin said Tuesday. "Even if only two of the group right now fully grasp it, it's probably something, 10 years from now, they'll have a better appreciation for it, just like I do as I get older."

St. John's is coming off a string of triumphs right now. The Red Storm have won four straight and six of seven, capped by a stirring 60-59 win over then-No. 4 Pittsburgh on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

Senior forward Justin Burrell said he already had 56 text messages waiting for him by the time he got off the court and entered the locker room Saturday. Lavin said he received somewhere between 400 and 450 text messages in the first 24 hours after the victory.

"The bigger wins against top-10 teams seem to lead to a range of 300 to 450 text messages -- it's been pretty consistent," Lavin said with a smile.

St. John's now has five wins over nationally ranked opponents this season -- its most since the 1999-2000 campaign. And all five of those opponents were among the top 15 in the nation at the time.

That led to the Red Storm finally entering the polls themselves, which the players found out about after practice Monday.

"I was excited," senior guard Paris Horne said. "[But] I'm not too excited. We still got a lot of work to do."

At 17-9 overall and 9-5 in the Big East, St. John's has effectively already accomplished its primary goal set at the beginning of this season -- to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. Now, with four regular-season games to go, the Red Storm are playing for a higher seed, both in the Big East tournament and the Big Dance.

Three of those four games will be against teams among the bottom five in the conference standings, beginning with last-place DePaul (7-19, 1-13) on Wednesday night at Carnesecca Arena.

"I think a couple months ago, or last year, this would have been a trap game," senior forward Sean Evans said. "I think we've learned from that -- that we gotta come out and play.

"Anything can happen in this league. DePaul just came off a tough [77-75 OT] loss to Villanova -- they should have won that game. So you know anything can happen in this league, so we just gotta be ready to play."

Besides the fear of a letdown against an inferior opponent, another area of concern is the fact that the DePaul game, and the game against South Florida next week, will be played in Queens. St. John's is a sparkling 7-1 at the Garden but just 3-2 at its more modest on-campus arena -- including losses to St. Bonaventure and Cincinnati, and a near-disaster against Rutgers earlier this month.

"There's definitely not a letdown, but for some reason we do play different in Carnesecca," Burrell said. "I can't pinpoint it -- if I could, I definitely would tell you guys, and hopefully I'd go out and change it. But actually I really don't know why we play different; I don't understand it."

The arena, with a capacity of 5,602, is expected to be sold out Wednesday night.

"Hopefully [the fans] are getting ready to start screaming and yelling and being excited, because we really want to come out and play well," Burrell said. "And they help us out tremendously."

One more worry is the threat of distractions, with all the increased attention that comes with a national ranking and a series of high-profile wins. But the players sounded up to that challenge Tuesday.

"It's going to be a big test," Evans said. "But I think we're a mature team and we know how to handle things like this."

"We don't pull any punches. We talk about distractions," Lavin said. "Momentum can be elusive, just like confidence. And when you have momentum and you have confidence, you have to be mindful of protecting it, and that means the responsibility of everyone involved in our program is to stay on point and do the things that it takes to replicate or duplicate the success that we've had … whether that's focus in practice, getting your rest at night, making sure you're not out partying, that you're making the sacrifice that it takes for this stretch of basketball to put ourselves in the best possible position to be successful.

"It just comes back to the consistent approach."

Sounds like someone who's a fan of a certain work by Rudyard Kipling.

"The poem kinda sums up who he is," Burrell said. "He tells us every day, 'Your destiny and all of that is in your hands.'"

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.
Follow Kieran on Twitter »

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