CHARLOTTE, N.C - The honeymoon was sweet when Steve Lavin left ESPN and returned to the bench to take over a fading St. John's basketball program in 2010. He turned the 10 seniors Norm Roberts left behind into an NCAA team, and he built on that success by bringing the nation's third-ranked recruiting class to the campus in Queens.
Since then, it's been a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows and unfortunate events. The core seniors from the 2011 freshman class -- D'Angelo Harrison, Phil Greene and Sir'Dominic Pointer, plus transfer Jamal Branch -- achieved their long-sought goal of making the NCAA Tournament this year, but the dream died with their second-round loss to San Diego State Friday night in a game played without Chris Obekpa, who was suspended two weeks for a violation of team rules.
With those four seniors leaving and uncertainty surrounding the return of Obekpa and sophomore guard Rysheed Jordan, St. John's president Conrado Gempesaw has a decision to make on Lavin, who is entering the final year of his six-season deal.
On the morning after Lavin bid goodbye to the core group that held his program together despite a thin supporting cast, the coach made his case for a contract extension, citing three 20-win seasons, two NCAA bids, two NIT bids and an improved record of graduating the players who use up their eligibility.
"If someone five years ago told me this is where we were going to be, I think everyone would have signed on for it," Lavin said. "The goal was to graduate your kids, to be competitive and competing for an NCAA Tournament bid on an annual basis, which we've been doing for three years now.
"When you look around the country, you see teams like Pittsburgh, Michigan and Florida, good programs, and they're not even in the NCAA Tournament. It shows how challenging and difficult it is to rebuild a program and to restore some pride and to make us an attractive destination once again for the elite-level players."
The question is how much better St. John's might have been had Lavin not recruited so many non-qualifiers academically. Three members of his original nine-man class failed to qualify, though JaKarr Sampson and Amir Garrett later did join the program before leaving early to pursue NBA and pro baseball careers. The season that just ended began with the announcement that big men Adonis De La Rosa and Keith Thomas were not eligible.
"You have to put it in the context of everyone else, and what we're doing is exceptional," Lavin said, noting that non-qualifiers are common in many major programs. "The goal was to come here and gradually build the program back to a place where, on an annual basis, we're vying for postseason bids. The reality is, if D'Angelo is not suspended in that [third] year, we're in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament. Last year, we were the last team out with a No. 1 seed in the NIT, and this year, we punched through."
Lavin said he will be surprised if everyone left on the current roster doesn't return despite speculation about Obekpa and Jordan leaving. He signed three recruits, but only guard Brandon Sampson is a highly rated impact player. Lavin, however, expressed confidence about the April signing period.
Asked if he needs an extension so he's not a lame duck in the recruiting wars, Lavin said, "Of course. But it's not like that's an issue that I'm knocking on their door about. They've been great to me. They're giving us the opportunity to be successful, and they're pleased with our results."
When it comes to evaluating his performance, Lavin said it's unrealistic to measure him against Kentucky and Duke. It makes more sense to compare his performance at St. John's to schools that made a similar change five years ago. "Compared to the coaches that came in during the last five years," Lavin said, "we did it. They didn't."
That call belongs to Gempesaw.