- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- If you sit in on a Steve Lavin news conference, you're practically guaranteed to hear one catchphrase in particular -- likely on multiple occasions.
"Hammer to rock" has become a mantra of sorts for St. John's. It's Lavin's metaphor for the hard work he asks for and expects from his players on a daily basis.
Some people may believe Lavin and his staff are nothing short of magicians for what they've accomplished with this Red Storm squad (19-9, 11-5 Big East), currently ranked No. 15 in the country heading into their game Thursday night at Seton Hall (11-17, 5-11).
But look a little deeper, and the explanation might be much simpler.
"I think this is just a prime example of hard work paying off," forward Sean Evans said after St. John's defeated Villanova on Saturday in Philadelphia.
The No. 15 ranking, and a projected No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, are gaudy numbers indeed. But perhaps even more impressive are the improvements this group has made in three key statistical categories -- one a short hop, and a couple of giant leaps.
At the beginning of the season, after watching film from 2009-10, Lavin identified three areas where he thought this team needed to improve: free-throw shooting, shot selection and turnovers.
Lavin wrote these things on a board on the first day of practice, and they have been points of emphasis ever since.
And, sure enough, St. John's has improved in each area.
The Red Storm, with practically an identical roster from a season ago, have jumped from being a 65.2 percent free-throw shooting team (No. 289 in Division I out of 336 schools) to currently shooting 70.9 percent (No. 117).
In terms of shot selection, well, St. John's went from shooting 42.4 percent as a team (No. 220) to currently shooting 45.7 percent (No. 77).
As for turnovers, the Red Storm were actually pretty good last season, averaging just 12.4 per game (No. 71). But they've gotten even better this season (12.1 per game, No. 57), despite utilizing a more up-tempo offense that one would think might lead to a few more giveaways.
Lavin's practices are closed to the media, so we can't see how hard the players run or how much they sweat. But several players, over the past few weeks, have brought up how hard the team has been working.
Also, Lavin has talked about trying to create a new culture within the program, mentioning among other things his crack-of-dawn practices at the beginning of the season, and other initiatives like the "100 Club," in which players come to the gym and shoot 100 extra free throws a few times a week.
"It starts with strength and conditioning," Lavin said after practice Tuesday. "The players working in the spring and summer individually on their skill development. And then our 6 a.m. practices to start the season, and some two-a-days sprinkled in. Along with the film sessions, extra work on free-throw shooting and [field-goal] shooting as well. Our position meetings, where we break down our post players and our perimeter players. And just the standard of effort and concentration that's expected on a daily basis in practice. As you kind of put all those things together, you start to see the results."
Point guard Malik Boothe said Tuesday the players were doubly motivated when Lavin and Co. came aboard.
"As far as the coaching staff, I think we all really just wanted to show them that they had a hard-working group of seniors," Boothe said. "For us personally, being seniors, we realized this is our last go-round, so we really wanted to leave it all out on the floor."
Off the floor, it sounds like this team has worked equally as hard -- again, with the coaching staff's help.
"They really keep us grounded," forward Justin Burrell said. "You guys might have Facebooks and Twitters and all that stuff, but we're not on it. That keeps us focused in. We're not allowed to go out to clubs or bars or anything like that. We really keep each other close and we hang out together. We really try to keep our phone [use] at a minimum. ... We really try to keep our circle tight. After the season we'll have so much time to celebrate and enjoy our senior years."
The players' confidence is sky-high heading into the game against Seton Hall at the Prudential Center, with St. John's having won six in a row and eight of nine. The Pirates did beat Syracuse by 22 at the Carrier Dome on Jan. 25, but they've lost three in a row and five of six, and currently stand in 12th place in the conference.
Lavin said Tuesday he is not worried about his team taking this game lightly.
"With this particular group, I haven't worried about letdowns," Lavin said, "only because they're so hungry and they haven't had the degree of success throughout their careers until this season."
"We're a real mature team," Evans said on Tuesday. "In this league, anyone can beat anyone. ... We're gonna go in there with the same focus if we were playing the No. 1 team in the conference or the last-place team in the conference."
A win over Seton Hall, and a win at home against South Florida on Saturday, and St. John's is assured of having a top-four seed in the Big East tournament -- which means a double-bye and a direct flight to the quarterfinals.
But the Red Storm are dreaming even bigger right now.
"Win every game we're in," Evans said, when asked what this team's goal is for the rest of the season. "If we get to the national championship, we get to the national championship. As long as we play as hard as we can and do as much as we possibly can to get to that game, I'm happy with it. And I think my teammates will be too."
Who would have imagined a St. John's player talking like this back in October?
Hard work, or "hammer to rock," pays off.
Blue-collar Red Storm put "hammer to rock" and watch the victories pile up.