St. John's coach Steve Lavin always says his coaching strategy is designed to have his team playing its best in February and March, and when the Red Storm upset Connecticut on Feb. 6 at Madison Square Garden, it appeared they were primed for a surprising run at an NCAA bid.
At that point, St. John's had a 15-8 overall record and stood 7-4 in Big East play. But for the second straight season, Lavin was called away from the team by personal problems, and that was complicated by the inner turmoil on his team that greeted his return. The result was a 1-7 finish as Lavin suspended leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison for the final four games because of disciplinary problems.
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Early on Feb. 10 with his team in Syracuse to play the ninth-ranked Orange later that afternoon, Lavin received word that his father, Cap, had died, and he left to join his family in mourning. Fortunately, he had taken time a week earlier to fly to San Francisco for the weekend to watch the Super Bowl with his father, but six days later, his mentor was gone.
"There's some things that were beyond these kids' control, and I told them that's why I'm proud of the way they dealt with things," Lavin said Wednesday night after the Red Storm lost its second-round Big East Tournament game to Villanova. "My father died the day we played Syracuse. It's not their fault, but obviously, I had to be with my family.
"So the losing streak started the day I found out my dad was going to die. Things happen, but I share a major part of the responsibility in the fact that we didn't finish as well as we would have liked . . . There is no coaching manual on having a father die. It was unusual. It's been really tough."
Of course, the previous season Lavin coached only four games and then sat out the remainder while recovering from prostate cancer surgery. The Red Storm finished that season with only six scholarship players, including just one upperclassman. Lavin added another high-quality group of recruits, including Big East rookie of the year JaKarr Sampson this season, but it still was a team made up primarily of sophomores and freshmen.
Lavin made a stunning decision to sit down Harrison with three games left in the regular season, but he said it had to be done because of repeated disciplinary problems. Although Harrison told the coach he plans to work through it and return next season, that situation remains uncertain.
Even so, Lavin has described this year as "a bridge to next season." He is anticipating a team that not only will be competitive in the new Big East Conference but one capable of making a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Comparing the Red Storm to Villanova, which missed the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons but now seems assured of a bid this year, Lavin said, "That will be us next fall. When you have a resolve because you've been knocked down or beat down as we have, that's when you move forward."