New St. John's basketball coach Steve Lavin is in a weird place. When practice officially opens a week from Friday, he will take the senior-laden team Norm Roberts left behind and try to make it better with only the addition of highly touted recruit Dwayne Polee. A year from now, Lavin will have an entirely different team of Polee and 10 new scholarship players.
"It's clearly a transitional year, and then next year, because we're going to lose nine seniors, it's really rebuilding,'' Lavin said Tuesday at St. John's Bread and Life Soup Kitchen in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where he presented a $20,000 donation split evenly between himself and BTIG Brokerage. "I think the key is recognizing this first 18 months is going to be an exercise in prioritizing.''
Lavin's March 30 hiring left little time to recruit, but the former UCLA coach relied on his Los Angeles contacts to lure the 6-7 forward Polee to play in Madison Square Garden, where the Red Storm regularly has been outdrawn in recent years by UConn and Syracuse. Then Lavin hired his coaches, who began lining up talent to fill those 10 scholarships by November.
Only now is Lavin able to focus on the coming season. He's reviewed game tapes and worked with the team enough to know what he has and what he might do differently, but the key is how well the new staff and old players adapt to each other.
"If the two can work together in a cohesive way,'' Lavin said, "something special could happen, which would be sending these nine seniors out on a high note, not only getting their college degree, but playing in the postseason.''
Senior forward Rob Thomas, who accompanied Lavin to Bread and Life, said the veterans accepted Polee easily. "We love Polee,'' Thomas said. "He's athletic, can shoot the 'j,' can go to the rim, can post up. He's a very, very important part to the puzzle already.''
Having so many experienced players gives Lavin the luxury of bringing Polee along gradually.
"He will be allowed the time to develop and contribute when we need him most, which is by conference play, as opposed to coming into a situation where you're expected to carry the program on your back as a freshman,'' Lavin said. "A year from now, he'll be in a better position to lead the new group of 10 players that arrives.''