St. John's University's new head coach Steve Lavin has had his ups and downs with his senior laden team in non-conference play so far. Now comes a big test against West Virginia (8-2) and it won't get any easier. His slicked back hair is about to get mussed. Welcome to the Big East Conference coach Lavin.
The Red Storm (7-3) heads down to West Virginia tonight for Lavin's first Big East conference game against a physically big and tough team. The Mountaineers have three New Yorkers who play rough and tumble Big East type basketball. Kevin Jones (Mt. Vernon), Truck Bryant (Brooklyn) and Danny Jennings (Staten Island) should be a handful for the experienced St. John's squad.
The Johnnies entered the season with high hopes and a lot of Big East experience. Four seasoned seniors and highly-touted freshman, Dwayne Polle II make up the nucleus of a team which feels it could make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.
The seniors--Justin Brownlee, Justin Burrell, Dwight Hardy and pre-season Big East second-team player, D.J. Kennedy--will lead the charge and have been through plenty of Big East scrums. It is a capable crew but they will need to learn how to focus and finish a game. Too many times the players watch half-time leads dwindle to losses. Turnovers and foul shooting are still problems too.
Lavin has brought lots of optimism to St. John's. Next year's recruiting class is being called one of the top five in the country and arguably the best in the prestigious St. John's basketball history. That is all and well for next year. Now comes the reality of playing one of best collection of Big East teams in the conference's thirty year history. Currently, five Big East teams reside in top ten national polls.
The Red Storm's brutal schedule includes Villanova, Georgetown (twice), Notre Dame (twice), Syracuse, Louisville, Connecticut and Pitt. All of those teams are in or hover around every top-25 poll in the country. Even the middle-of-the pack teams will be battling it out for an NCAA bubble spot in March. It isn't going to be easy for any team.
We all know now that Lavin can recruit on the East coast---even after being out of coaching since 2003---now let's see how he handles the ruggedness of Big East basketball and dealing with the referees.
Lavin, who is unfamiliar with Big East refs, will have to get on-the-job training in dealing with them. The coach, who was issued only three technicals in seven years as head coach at UCLA, already has two in his first ten games at St. John's.
The new head coach comes to St. John's bringing hope for the future and tournament dreams to a solid transitional team of experienced players. It is time for the Red Storm to find out what kind of team it really is.
The Mountaineers--a Final Four team last year-- are a physical bunch. It should provide a good barometer of what the Red Storm can achieve. Let's see how tough Lavin and the Red Storm really are. Let the real season begin!