St. John's head coach Steve Lavin, center, leads the Red...

St. John's head coach Steve Lavin, center, leads the Red Storm against Lehigh University at Carnesecca Arena. (Nov. 9, 2011) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

St. John's coach Steve Lavin called this basketball season the "most difficult experience" of his coaching career as he struggles to balance his health with a desire to guide his young team.

Lavin, recovering from prostate cancer surgery in October, has coached only four games this season, none since Nov. 18.

"What helps in dealing with that frustration is knowing that we have a first-rate staff," Lavin said on the Big East men's basketball conference call Thursday. "Being in communication with them and being in concert with them and getting enough time working with the players both individually and then as a group is the only way we can move our team forward at this point. But I'd say it's clearly the most challenging experience of my coaching career."

After beating Cincinnati on Jan. 7, St. John's has lost three in a row, scoring only 49 points in each of its last two games.

The potential on display in wins over Providence and Cincinnati has given way to inconsistent offensive play, and the team's lack of depth appears to be taking its toll. St. John's has played seven or fewer players in 15 consecutive games. Foul trouble recently has been an issue.

"We're in the midst of a tough stretch," Lavin said. "[Wednesday] night was another example of just not being able to sustain the level of intensity and execution."

There still is no timetable for Lavin's return, but he repeatedly has said he won't be back until he regains the stamina required for him to coach games.

St. John's faces Villanova Saturday at the Garden and West Virginia and No. 4 Duke next week. Wins won't come easily. But Lavin said that's not the sole objective.

"Our focus right now is just on playing a high level of basketball," he said. "We're trying to be patient but at the same time have a standard that will allow us to be competitive in this conference."

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