Steve Lavin On St. John’s, The Big East Tourney, & Transfers

(Steve Lavin – Photo by Jason Schott)

Steve Lavin, former UCLA and St. John’s Head Coach, will be calling the Big East Tournament for FOX Sports starting this Wednesday night, and the NCAA Tournament for CBS and Turner Sports beginning next Tuesday.

Lavin was on hand at a CBS/Turner March Madness media day event on Tuesday morning, and I caught up with him about what his thoughts on St. John’s season, how deep the Big East is this year, transfers, the upcoming Big Tournament, and the national tournament, which starts next week.

On St. John’s performance in the regular season, and how they will do in the Big East Tournament:

Nothing would surprise me. Like Seton Hall did a few years ago with Isaiah Whitehead and that group that won the Big East Conference tournament (in 2016), if they can get a win tomorrow (Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. against DePaul), get a win on Thursday (against Marquette), suddenly, by Friday night, you’ve got a packed Garden that will be rooting for St. John’s to win, and personnel-wise, when those five (Shamorie Ponds, Marvin Clark II, Justin Simon, LJ Figueroa, and Mustapha Heron), as we saw in the second half of that Villanova game at The Garden (on February 17) where they came back, that was an electric, frenzy, St. John’s-centered crowd, right? So, they’ve experienced it this year in The Garden, and it’s a matter of defense and offsetting their lack of size.

Those are the three things right there: lack of size and lack of depth, which affects their defense because, if you don’t have the size, you don’t have depth, and suddenly your defense gets worn down, you can’t be as aggressive because you get yourself in foul trouble. Now, your better players are on the bench and their bench is exposed in terms of who comes in.

On how St. John’s had one of the stranger seasons in college basketball, as they finished 8-10 in Big East play despite playing well against the top teams in the conference, with two wins against Marquette and one against Villanova:

Yeah, it was hard to know who they were early (in non-conference play) because their only real challenge was maybe VCU, right? The 12-0 start, you’d rather win than lose, but you can’t really make heads or tails of it because there wasn’t the challenges. Seton Hall playing Kentucky, Villanova playing Kansas and Michigan. You have to gauge like okay, Michigan, Villanova’s blown out (73-46 on November 14), but then they played Kansas tough (74-71 loss on December 15), Furman (76-68 loss in OT on Nov. 17) looked like a real shocker, but then Furman started having a really good non-conference, so you really – now, would I have thought that Villanova would get out to a 10-0 start in Big East play? Probably not, but by the end of the non-conference, you had a better feel for Villanova, and I didn’t really have a feel for St. John’s just because there wasn’t any real report card opportunities, and then in conference, I mean, the two over Marquette and the one at home against Villanova are three of the most impressive wins of any team in the conference. It will be interesting, did anyone else go 3-1 in the conference against Marquette and Villanova? (there was not – Seton Hall and Georgetown went 2-2 against them)

On how deep the Big East Conference is this year:

What’s interesting about this Big East Tournament is you’ve got, if you’re Seton Hall, you’ve got to be feeling pretty confident because you just beat the 1 and 2 seed (73-64 over Marquette on March 6 and 79-75 over Villanova on March 9), and you have momentum coming into The Garden. If you’re Villanova, you won the league championship outright, so you’ve gotta feel pretty good that you can win against the field. If you’re St. John’s and you beat the league champion on your home court and you swept Marquette, the 1 and 2 seed coming to your home court, you’ve gotta feel you’ve got a chance to win the league.

You start going down the list there, and Xavier’s coming in maybe as hot as anyone with seven (wins) out of eight (games), so they probably feel like, hey, if Naji Marshall’s healthy, that’s a big ‘if,’ and then Creighton now has caught fire, they feel like they’ve overcome all their struggles, adversity and Ty-Shon Alexander’s healthy and they’re probably closer to full strength than they’ve been all year, so Creigthon thinks they’ve got a shot.

It’s rare, and it’s the first time that DePaul has a real formidable team and arguably the best front line if you count all four – Max Strus, who had 43 against St. John’s (on March 3); Femi Olujobi, a graduate transfer, scores as well as anybody; Jaylen Butz, appropriately named with his fanny carving space down there and finishes near the basket; and then Paul Reed, who reminds me a lot of (Moe) Harkless, the kid we had at St. John’s, very fluid, graceful, so those four, Eli Cain and Devin Gage, they just don’t make mistakes. Would it shock me if they got to the final? No, because this is a different DePaul team than we’ve seen in decades.

On the bigger picture of what Head Coach Chris Mullin is doing with St. John’s:

The things that jump out to me that are attractive, the style of play, small ball, you know, peddle to the medal, high-octane, is the way young kids want to play, and then when you have two Hall of Famers on the bench (Mullin and Mitch Richmond), you’re able to, as an assistant, frame the argument that, you know, you want to play at the next level, here are two guys that have been there and are in the Hall of Fame at that level who can impart their experience and wisdom with you, and then Madison Square Garden, greatest venue on Earth, and New York City, you know, and then the tradition, so those would be the five things that are really attractive. That’s really what we pretty much sold, except I played Division 2 basketball, and I had Coach (Gene) Keady on the bench.

I think the fact that Chris went to St. John’s, so he’s a product of the university and of the Big East Conference, and so there are some natural elements that coalesce for a really strong presentation.

I think the challenge has been the transfers, you know, the number of transfers out and then the number of transfers in, which can be good if they gel, and you know, Nevada’s done that with Eric Musselman – he has around 10 transfers on his roster, and I think St. John’s might have eight, right, four of the five starters are transfers. The transfers out, like (Kassoum) Yakwe to UConn and Tariq Owens to Texas Tech really hurt because, if they had Tariq Owens, he’s the anchor of one of the best defenses in the country at Texas Tech, and Kassoum maybe didn’t come along offensively as well as they hoped, but he was a stout, physical body, five fouls, that can knock some people around.

The transfer is a little bit of a double-edged sword – if you lose guys that can help you, you know, but you bring in some guys that can help you, but to make it all work is a delicate kind of alchemy, a balancing act that I think is difficult. Some have a gift for it, you know, Tark (Jerry Tarkanian) at UNLV was amazing bringing in kids from different places and making it all work, and it’s becoming more common because of the graduate transfers. Iowa State, (Fred) Hoiberg had lots of transfers. St. John’s through the years would  have transfers, I don’t think there’s ever been a period where there’e been as many transfers in and out as there has been the last four years.

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