- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEWARK, N.J. -- When first-year St. John's coach Steve Lavin signed a top-rated recruiting class before his new team had even played a game for him, it was a startling achievement. Yet, it's still not the most startling thing Lavin has done in this program-reviving season that's hurtling toward Big East tournament play next week. Lavin had reeled in two top-rated recruiting classes before, at UCLA. He's like one of those baseball players who can fall out of bed and hit .400.
The real shocker this season has been how Lavin rolled into the Big East -- arguably the best conference in the country that boasts heavyweights Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino and could send 11 teams to the NCAA tournament -- and, after seven seasons off the sidelines, now has people saying it'll be a crime if he doesn't win coach of the year.
For the first time in his career, the 46-year-old Lavin is finally starting to be seen as a Coach with a capital "C." He's forcing even his harshest critics to consider he may actually know what he's doing during games.
"Oh, I don't see that happening," Lavin said with a laugh Thursday night, standing in the tunnel at the Prudential Center not long after St. John's had, in his typically colorful words, just gotten "waxed ... punched in the mouth ... and had it handed to us [because] we forgot to bring our brass knuckles" during an 84-70 upset loss to Seton Hall.
St. John's had won six straight and eight of nine overall heading into the game. They'd soared to No. 15 in the country, their highest ranking in more than a decade. But the poise and sharp execution the Johnnies showed while closing out ranked teams Villanova, Pitt, Duke and UConn this season wasn't there at the end Thursday night.
For only the second time in Lavin's head coaching career, he got tossed with 1:55 to play and St. John's trailing by nine. He had purposely called a timeout so he could run on the court to argue with a referee who had just overruled a jump ball call and handed St. John's a foul instead. A little over a minute later, the Johnnies didn't like how senior forward D.J. Kennedy got thrown to the floor in a fight for a rebound with Seton Hall's Patrik Auda. When Hall's Alani Okoloji tried to score on a fast-break dunk at the other end, the Johnnies' Justin Burrell hammered Okoloji to the floor for a flagrant foul with 7.6 seconds left. Burrell was ejected, too.
Lavin apologized for himself and Burrell afterward. He lamented how St. John's (19-10) probably blew its chance to get a double bye to the quarterfinal round of the Big East tournament because Syracuse, with whom they're tied for fourth in the league, owns a tiebreaker against them.
But one loss to a longtime archrival such as Seton Hall in an otherwise red-hot month of milestone wins need not foreshadow anything bad happening to St. John's in the Big East tournament next week, or the NCAA tournament beyond that. St. John's has the versatility, toughness and pressure defense to beat anyone.
It also has a star senior guard, Dwight Hardy, whose scoring carried St. John's on its February streak. He had a nice 23-point game against Seton Hall to keep up his argument for Big East Player of the Year.
But Lavin admitted it would help a lot if St. John's knocks off South Florida in its regular-season finale Saturday at home, just to stop any doubts that the Johnnies are going to wake up one day and find their magic left them as quickly as it came.
Coaching teams that went through wild swings was another rap against Lavin at UCLA. And that's another perception that Lavin can radically change about his coaching history if the Johnnies can stay hot and make a nice tournament run in the next month.
When Lavin was thrust into becoming the head coach at UCLA as a 32-year-old, after his boss, Jim Harrick, was fired before the 1996-97 season for lying about a recruiting matter, he wasn't given much credit for getting the Bruins to the Midwest regional final. They'd just won a national title a year and a half earlier. It was said Lavin was just winning with Harrick's system and Harrick's team.
But the sight of Lavin winning at St. John's now with a senior-laden group that never really got off the ground the previous three seasons for former coach Norm Roberts has forced people to draw the obvious conclusion: The difference has to be Lavin. It's the coaching, stupid.
It's hard to conclude anything else when you look at who St. John's has beaten and how they've won those six games against top 25 teams. The Johnnies attacked relentlessly while knocking off then-No. 3 Duke and Mike Krzyzewski at Madison Square Garden. They executed smartly and refused to wither down the stretch at Villanova. And were tough enough to go toe-to-toe with a physical Pitt team that's likely to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Losing close games was a flaw that haunted the Johnnies last year. Winning close games -- another sign good coaching is sinking in -- has been a hallmark this year. But then, did you know Lavin was 12-4 in overtime games at UCLA?
"I'd vote for Steve for Big East Coach of the Year. Why, I'd vote for him for national coach of the year," barked Gene Keady, the 74-year-old coaching sage who gave Lavin his first college coaching job at Purdue and agreed to join him as a special assistant at St. John's this season.
Keady was standing outside the St. John's locker room Thursday night with a Yankees cap knocked back on his head as he spoke. He admitted he's biased about Lavin because "I love him like a son." But, Keady added, facts are facts.
"They were crazy to fire him at UCLA. Why would they fire him when he went to the Sweet 16 five out of seven years?" Keady asked. "Steve could always coach. But I've seen changes in him, too, since before. He's a much better teacher now, a lot stronger. He's picked up a lot about the game, how to play the game right. He watched a lot of teams' practices when he worked [as an analyst] for ESPN. This year he's done a great job of mix and matching the talent, knowing how to sub, how to mix up the defenses and stuff. And he can motivate kids."
Lavin is never at a loss for themes or metaphors, either. After ticking off a long list of reasons why St. John's lost Thursday (look no further than Seton Hall's wildly-out-of-character 12-for-18 3-point shooting), Lavin admitted -- when pressed -- that something else was probably in play, too.
St. John's is now expected to win. And that's new.
"We're the hunted now because we've had some success, and the higher you go, the thinner the air up there gets," Lavin said. "Teams are coming at us now like we have a big target on our backs. And that's something new for this particular group that we have."
Handling that new pressure come tournament time is Lavin's next challenge.
But he's a Coach, with a capital 'C.' "It's my job to help them figure it out," he said.
Steve Lavin has reshaped his image in less than a year on the job at St. John's.