This one just has a special feel to it.
The UCLA Bruins (15-11, 8-6 Pac-12) come to Madison Square Garden to face the St. John's Red Storm (10-16, 4-10 Big East) for a battle between two of the most storied programs in the sport's history. The game, which will be nationally televised on CBS at 1pm, may not have any significant postseason implications. But, here we are, more pumped than usual.
Saturday marks the tenth head-to-head clash in the series of rivaling coasts, and the second since former UCLA head coach Steve Lavin came aboard as the Johnnies' head man. UCLA hasn't come to the Garden to battle St. John's since 2004, when a weak Red Storm team actually defeated an even weaker Bruins squad by 16. That was the first season of the tenure of Ben Howland, Lavin's successor, in Westwood.
A year ago, Lavin's senior-laden Red Storm fell to UCLA in Westwood, 66-59, in a close game with unbalanced officiating. The kids really wanted to win for their first-year leader, but fell short despite valiant efforts. The 2011-12 Johnnies, an entirely different cast, has similar aspirations.
See also: Game 27: St. John's vs. UCLA Bruins (Rumble preview)
Call it a search for revenge. Call it the newest chapter in the novel of development. Call it one game closer to 2013. Whatever you choose, you can't deny that you'll have you're eye on it.
More, below the fold.
41-7. No, we're not talking about the final score of USC-Army. If any St. John's fans needed a disheartening reminder, that statistic represents the stunning disparity in free throw attempts in last year's meeting between the Red Storm and Bruins.
You might argue that it's a waste of time to harp on a 12.5 month-old, long-decaying fact. A moot point, really. Well, St. John's doesn't think about it that way. UCLA attempted 34 more free throws than the Johnnies on February 5, 2011, in a game that was ultimately decided by just 7 points.
How can you say that doesn't sting?
No, there isn't a single player on the St. John's roster left over from that agonizing loss. The six current Johnnies that see regular court time, the majority of whom were already committed to Lavin's program at that time, were probably watching that game from their respective camps. They remember.
"I'm looking forward to playing UCLA," said D`Angelo Harrison at St. John's Media Day back in November. "UCLA is Lav's school and they beat us last year. We're going to beat UCLA - for Lav."
UCLA abused St. John's in the interior game that day. Center Joshua Smith, who comes to the Garden Saturday as just a sophomore, came off the bench to lead the Bruins with 19 points. The Johnnies' front line never really had an answer. But, ironically enough, Smith only attempted 5 free throws.
Fast forward to the present. Smith and the rest of the UCLA clan invades New York looking to create a nice little winning streak over St. John's. On Saturday, the interior advantage that the Bruins held last February will be more exaggerated, with St. John's only having two players over 6'6", and one over 210 pounds.
But one thing that may not be talked about much is the reversal of roles. St. John's traveled to Westwood last year to face the Bruins in a similarly CBS-broadcasted game. It was the Johnnies' third of three trips to the west coast. UCLA comes to the Garden on Saturday and will tip at 1pm, or, more importantly, 10am Cali time. Howland's group has only defeated one Division I team (Washington State) away from Los Angeles this season.
There isn't much secret where the story lines will be coming from as these two teams hit the floor on Saturday. Ironically, the guy who will be at the center of attention will most likely be looking out from high atop in a luxury suite. But no one said he will be comfortable.
Lavin never gives away the opportunity to express his love for UCLA, Coach John Wooden, and all that the program provided him during his twelve years there. The Red Storm even has an offensive set aptly named "UCLA."
"It's a game of pride to [Coach Lavin]," mentioned God`sgift Achiuwa on Friday. "Having been the coach of UCLA before and coming to St. John's, I think it's more of an emotional game and he really wants to win."
But beating UCLA on Saturday wouldn't just fulfill some need for revenge or even a hunger to "Do It For Lav." St. John's knows there are other reasons why this opportunity is overflowing with importance.
Amir Garrett, a California native, chose to come to St. John's over UCLA during last year's recruiting process. In a sense, he chose new vogue, swagged out new-Lavin over Lavin's past.
"I know a lot of guys that play for UCLA," Garrett said. "They recruited me pretty heavily. All of my family will be watching and have been telling me 'This is a big game, this is a big game.'"
Madison Square Garden may not be sold out on Saturday, but you can bet there will be a buzz. St. John's, having lost its last four games, knows it needs to turn things around to gain positive momentum heading into the Big East Tournament and, more importantly, into next year.
For now, this one stands alone. It's "Do It For Lav" time, and there's no shying away from that reality.