- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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DENVER -- As soon as the St. John's players walked into the Pepsi Center on Wednesday afternoon, they knew they had waded into uncharted waters.
"I looked in the gym and I saw that there were fans here to watch practice. That's new to me," said Malik Boothe.
"As soon as I walked in the room, I started feeling game-day anxieties," said Justin Burrell. "I've never had that for a practice before."
The Red Storm practiced from 5:10 to 5:50 p.m., in front of the media and several hundred fans -- working hard, but looking like they were having a lot of fun, too. Paris Horne and Dwayne Polee put on an impromptu dunk contest in the middle of one drill, to the delight of the crowd. The diminutive Boothe even tried to get involved, but his dunk attempt rimmed out.
The 13 players on this St. John's roster -- nine seniors included -- have never played in an NCAA tournament game. For them, this stage is an entirely new experience. But their head coach is very familiar with it. Steve Lavin took his UCLA teams to the Big Dance six times from 1997 to 2003.
And not only is Lavin familiar with the tournament, he's familiar with winning, too. He is 10-1 in NCAA first- and second-round games, and had guided the Bruins to four Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight appearance.
Lavin was asked on Wednesday, in the locker room prior to the team's open practice, why he thinks he has been so successful in coaching during the postseason.
"The one thing that I think is vital is having familiarity with tournament conditions," Lavin said. "And the more times you've been in the NCAA, the easier it becomes to prepare your team, and to know what's ahead.
"So the years at Purdue, the years at UCLA as an assistant -- I think it was 13 consecutive NCAA tournaments as an assistant and head coach -- and so I just think that familiarity is a positive, in terms of preparing your team. It doesn't, by any means, guarantee wins. But I do think it helps."
One thing Lavin believes in, when it comes to March, is that you don't abandon the way you normally operate.
"I think it's important at this stage of the year that you don't have a big departure from the way in which you've prepared all season long," Lavin said. "Because basketball is a performance-oriented sport -- so like a musician, like an entertainer, there are certain routines that get you on point to perform at a high level."
Another thing Lavin believes in is not going overboard with the scouting report.
"I think it's a balance of being mindful of what the patterns of play of your opponent are, but not departing from what's allowed you to be successful to this point of the season," Lavin said. "And I think the biggest mistake coaches can make in the NCAA tournament is giving a team too much, and creating what I call a paralysis from analysis. And then inhibiting the instinctive or the aggressive confident brand of basketball that you need to have in the postseason.
"It's really about imposing our preferred style of play and tempo on an opponent."
Lavin's focus on his own team, over and above anything else, has certainly paid off. Several of the St. John's players said on Wednesday that Lavin's approach has given them tremendous confidence this week, and all season.
"He's just saying, play how we play, and we should be fine," said Dwight Hardy. "That's been the theme all year. There's always scouting reports on other teams, but at the end of the day, it depends on what we do, to determine the outcome of the game. That's what he's been stressing, and he hasn't really switched it up."
"Coach Lavin just brings that winner mentality -- just feeding us winning, and going to the tournament, and doing big things from Day 1," Paris Horne said. "And having us work so hard, it just made us see it, and actually believe that we could do it. And we just ran with that, and it worked out for us. ... If we do the things we do well, we feel like we can beat anybody."
"I really don't think it's something that you can explain, it's just something that happened," Sean Evans said. "I think that him bringing such confidence and such swagger, like I say all the time -- so confident, it just rubs off on us. When you're around a person so much, some of these tendencies start to rub off. And I think that's what happened with us. He just instilled in us, winning is what we do. So we're just running with that and trying to win as many games as we can."
The run starts with Gonzaga on Thursday night -- a team Lavin called "as gifted a team as we have faced all year, offensively." The Zags shoot 47.9 percent from the field (No. 8 in the country), 75.9 percent from the foul line (No. 15), and have size -- second-leading scorer Robert Sacre (12.5 ppg) is a 7-footer.
But St. John's is going to play its game on Thursday. It's going to look to run on offense, and try to wreak havoc on defense. It'll dance with what's brung 'em this far.
As part of sticking to the normal routine, after the brief open practice at the Pepsi Center, Lavin brought his team to nearby Regis College for a real practice, behind closed doors.
But before they left, the players and staff took a team picture. After that, they huddled up at center court and, on three, all yelled one word.
That's right -- they're in the business of winning at St. John's now. And this journey to Denver is a business trip
The best business trip of their lives.
Steve Lavin's confidence and swagger is rubbing off on his St. John's team.