Commentary

For Lavin, the hard work begins now

St. John's new coach is charming, sure, but can he deliver?

Updated: April 5, 2010, 7:07 PM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

The flashbulbs began popping furiously the second Steve Lavin walked into the gymnasium at Taffner Field House on Wednesday afternoon.

Noticeably, Lavin was carrying a binder full of materials on his way to the dais to be officially introduced as the new men's basketball coach at St. John's. Later in the news conference, Lavin alluded to the material as his "homework" on his new team.

That's very appropriate, because Lavin has lots of work to do -- learning about his players, connecting with local high school and AAU coaches, and re-energizing a dormant fan base.

"I've got a full plate," Lavin said to the throng of media in attendance Wednesday. "Some may call it daunting … but I'm a glass-half-full guy."

Steve Lavin
AP Photo/Craig RuttleSteve Lavin wowed the media (and Lou Carnesecca) on Wednesday.

The hiring of Lavin has definitely been the big splash St. John's was hoping for -- at least in the short term. The new coach (and his bombshell wife, a professional actress) have been plastered on the front and back pages of the New York tabloids. He's been ubiquitous on local radio and TV already.

The big question is, can he still coach? Lavin had a very successful tenure at UCLA -- a 145-78 record, with six NCAA tourney appearances in seven seasons (including five Sweet 16s). But he hasn't piloted a team or recruited players in seven years -- a very lengthy sabbatical in the coaching profession.

"I thought it was an interesting hire," said Bob Hurley Sr., the legendary coach at St. Anthony's High School in Jersey City, N.J. "[Lavin's] got some cobwebs to shake off. He's been around the game outside the lines, but he hasn't been inside the lines. There's a big difference."

Lavin was a strong recruiter with the Bruins -- seven of his former players or recruits are currently playing in the NBA, including Baron Davis and Trevor Ariza. But now he's on the opposite end of the country, with no New York City ties, so he'll likely need to hire some assistant coaches who know the local area inside and out.

"[Lavin's] a big-time coach," said Dwayne "Tiny" Morton, the coach at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, Stephon Marbury's alma mater. "But it really depends on his staff, how good a coach he can become [in New York]."

"He's definitely worth a shot," said Ron Nacliero, the coach at Cardozo High School in Queens, which went to the PSAL championship game this year. "But he's in unchartered waters. … New York is a tough, tough battleground for players."

Is the glass really half-full? On the empty side, St. John's has not made the NCAA tournament since 2002. It has not won an NCAA tourney game since 2000 and has not been to a Sweet 16 since 1999. In the past six seasons, the Red Storm have a woeful 32-70 record in Big East games.

On the full side, Lavin is taking over a program that will return all five starters and 94 percent of its scoring from a team that finished above .500 (17-16) and qualified for the NIT. Perhaps more important, it's a program with a storied tradition -- seventh all-time in Division I in wins (1,703) and ninth all-time in winning percentage (.658), not to mention the arena where it plays the bulk of its home games. "Madison Square Garden is the greatest stage in the country to play basketball," Lavin said. "This is as good as it gets."

Lavin is banking on his media experience to help him when it comes to recruiting. He's been in people's living rooms for the past seven years as an ESPN college basketball analyst, so he still has a prominent name and face. And he's made a lot of friends along the way, too -- Lavin said he received more than 1,400 text messages and 1,200 e-mails in the first 48 hours after he accepted the St. John's job.

Hall of Fame coach Lou Carnesecca, who led St. John's to the Final Four 25 years ago, was also on the dais at Wednesday's press conference, and afterward, he strongly endorsed Lavin as his latest successor. "[Lavin] has a rare ability to communicate with people," Carnesecca said. "He doesn't razzle-dazzle you. He has a very easy manner of speaking to people."

"Hope springs eternal," Carnesecca added.

It is a hopeful time for many local college hoops programs. It feels as though we've just undergone a major changing of the guard in the metropolitan area. Tom Pecora was hired to coach Fordham last week. Kevin Willard was also introduced Wednesday, at Seton Hall. Tim Welsh was unveiled at Hofstra on Thursday. And the coaching carousel is not done spinning, with the Iona job (vacated by Willard) still up for grabs.

But St. John's is New York City's college basketball flagship. That's where it all begins. The Red Storm have found their rock-star head coach. Now it's time for the rock star to go back on tour, in the toughest conference in the country, and show that he can still sing.

Lavin chose another analogy Wednesday. "I'm returning to the gladiator pit to fight the lions," Lavin said, flashing that magnetic smile the cameras love.

This is going to be fun to watch.

Kieran Darcy covers college sports for ESPNNewYork.com. He can be reached at kieran.d.darcy@espn.com. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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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