Published November 20, 2014
One sign that you've made it in New York City is being recognized by the man in the street. Steve Lavin might soon need a disguise.
"The FedEx guy is always stopping me in my neighborhood, a big fan," the first-year St. John's coach said Tuesday, three days after the Red Storm beat No. 4 Pittsburgh, a victory that moved them into the Top 25 for the first time in over a decade.
"He was raving about Dwight Hardy yesterday as if I didn't see the game. He's just excited about basketball. He'll just jump out of the truck to talk while I'm trying to get my coffee. He's been giving me some good pep talks."
Need another sign you've made it? Text messages.
"From the time I left the court until I got to the locker room, I had 56 text messages," senior forward Justin Burrell said, referring to the last-second win over Pittsburgh. "From then until I was done with the media it was up to 84. Then when we got ranked I got another 30. It's a good thing I have an unlimited plan."
Lavin has him beat easily.
"After the big wins I'll get 400 to 450 texts," he said. "It's pretty consistent of 300 to 350 after a win. After the losses to Notre Dame and Louisville I got six or seven. My sisters text and one of my staff and that's about it."
There's a feeling around St. John's that hasn't been there for quite some time.
Since the 2000-01 season, the Red Storm have had two 20-win seasons and those records can't be found in the media guide since the NCAA vacated 47 wins over four seasons for infractions over off-court issues that resulted in probation and a loss of scholarships.
In Norm Roberts' six seasons there were two winning records, both one game over .500.
Enter Lavin, the former UCLA coach who spent the last seven seasons as a TV analyst.
He took a roster with 10 seniors and introduced an uptempo, pressing game. The 23rd-ranked Red Storm are 17-9 overall and 9-5 in the Big East, considered the best conference in the country. The five marquee wins are over Georgetown, Notre Dame, Duke, Connecticut and Pittsburgh — all ranked in the top 10 this season.
With the winning comes crowds at Madison Square Garden, the program's second home. Last season, in seven home games there, the crowd topped 10,000 once. There were four crowds that didn't reach 6,000.
On Saturday, more than 14,000 people were in the building to see Hardy's underhanded flip with 1.2 seconds left win it.
"The first time playing in the Garden, I don't know the numbers but it didn't feel like the Garden attendancewise," Burrell said. "So now we play Garden games and I can't see two empty seats next to each other. That's exciting to have fans there cheering. Before it used to be the opposing team's fans outcheering ours. So this great."
Hall of Fame coaches Joe Lapchick and Lou Carnesecca were most responsible for the school's 1,720 victories, seventh most in Division I.
"They pulled a Lazarus," said Carnesecca, turning theological and referencing those who rise from the dead. "These kids have been through the wars. There's a buzz. These kids are the toast of the town and New York was begging for this. It wakes up the whole neighborhood."
The most wins this senior class has had is the 17 last season, a figure already matched with four regular-season games and the Big East and NCAA tournaments still to play.
An NCAA berth — it would the school's first since 2002 — is pretty much a certainty given the Red Storm's list of wins, strength of schedule (No. 1 in the nation) and RPI ranking (12). St. John's is also tied for fourth in a conference projected to get eight to 11 NCAA tournament bids.
"Last year I felt we were on the verge," senior Paris Horn said. "We were right there, but things didn't click."
They are clicking now and Burrell doesn't want that to change.
"When you're losing everything is dark," he said. "It's terrible to lose. I didn't want to speak to my mother, everything she said sounded bad. Classwork is so much harder, all that stuff. Now, my mom's nice, puts a couple of extra dollars in my account. Teachers are being extra nice. Everyone is smiling a little harder. The campus life is a little bit more fun. Everything is great."
And Lavin and his inherited rotation of 10 seniors, one sophomore and one freshman are giving St. John's fans a ride they haven't had in a while.
"Being seniors and going through the tough times we had we want to maintain what we have now so there's no letdown," forward Sean Evans said.
And to keep the team's mind on the task at hand, Lavin placed a copy of Rudyard Kipling's poem "If" in every player's locker.
"This is different for me," said Lavin, who had a 145-78 record in seven seasons at UCLA and took the Bruins to six NCAA tournaments, reaching the round of 16 four times.
"At 46 everything is different," he said. "I was 32 when I got the job at UCLA. At 46, you're more deliberate. Maybe you appreciate things more because you slow down and have more life experience to look back on."
"This is really a special team," he added. "And they're in the middle of an impressive run, yet we have so much work ahead of us and there's only a month or so to go. It's been a very rewarding group to work with, gratifying to see the breakthroughs."