No stoppin' - Steve Lavin returns, looks to lead the Red Storm back to NCAA Tournament

Tim Dimas

On a night where the new season officially began for the Red Storm, one man stood front and center amid the Tip-Off excitement.

Last night's Red Storm Tip-Off event served as the unofficial commencement of a new season, a season that for St. John's fans is filled with enough hope and promise to light the Empire State Building.

More importantly, the gala let everyone in attendance know that coach Steve Lavin, the architect of the resurgence at St. John's was back, and back with a vengeance.

Midway through the festivities at Carnesecca Arena, master of ceremonies John Anderson, who had the night off from his day job at ESPN, introduced the players and coaches who call the corner of Union and Utopia their home. His announcement of Steve Lavin to the 3,000-plus in attendance prompted a rousing ovation for the man who is now fully recovered from prostate cancer surgery that force him to sacrifice his 2011-12 season on the bench.

After the event concluded, Lavin was asked about the personal highlights of the night for him; and for the first time in almost a year, the coach provided one of his trademark "Lavin Lines" for a response.

"Feeding off the players' energy was an uplifting experience for me," Lavin said with his ever-present smile. "It reminds you of the joy that team sports can bring. It's like Christmas Eve, shaking the presents, or like an Easter egg hunt."

Lavin's Red Storm squad returns four of its five starters from last season, while welcoming seven newcomers into the fold. The young team has shown an eagerness to take the court; but the coach remained realistic about what lies ahead, intimating that the youth on the roster is still a huge concern.

"Most publications, with good reason, are picking us anywhere from 10th-15th (in the Big East) because they're aware of how young we are," said Lavin. "I think what will determine how successful of a season we have is how quickly we mature and come of age."

A key to the Johnnies' maturity is the evolution of sophomore D`Angelo Harrison, now the de facto leader in the red and white following Moe Harkless' jump to the NBA. Harrison, who will see minutes at point guard until Texas A&M transfer Jamal Branch becomes eligible, displayed his newly acquired skill as a facilitator during the team's intrasquad scrimmage last night.

"He's made dramatic improvement across the board," Steve Lavin said of Harrison, while raving about the newfound depth of a team who played a six-man rotation most of the last season. "With our style of play, having depth is critical because we can rotate fresh bodies on the floor and continue to apply pressure."

While the players took some of the spotlight, the night truly belonged to Lavin and his official comeback after being limited to just four games on the sideline a year ago. When asked just how much his illness made him put things into perspective, the 48-year-old Lavin called his road to recovery a struggle in no uncertain terms.

"You look at the world through a different lens or prism," the coach stated with regard to his health and the sacrifices it forced him to make in his career. "It definitely changes your perspective. The most challenging aspect of last season was not being able to participate in the journey on an everyday basis. I wasn't going to be able to sign eight players, coach the team, and fully recuperate." At least not at the same time, that is.

Lavin's "hammer to rock" mantra, which was put on full display during the Red Storm's run to the 2011 NCAA Tournament, was the driving force behind his gradual recovery and resuming his duties as head coach a little at a time. The coach decided to recover first and foremost, undergoing surgery after admitting his November comeback last season was premature.

In an unconventional fashion, Lavin was able to use his free time during the season to secure the new recruits that; when blended with the five incumbents from last year's rotation, combines to form what he considers "one of those special groups in terms of their synergy."

Finally, Steve Lavin has returned to coach the team, which could not have come at a better time for all associated with St. John's basketball. The program has "picked up traction," in Lavin's words, both in recruiting and overall relevance since his arrival following his well-publicized seven-year sabbatical after being dismissed at UCLA.

"The next step," Lavin continued, "is shaping this young team and seasoning this group so we can turn into a sustainable winner."

The St. John's basketball Twitter feed has been hyping up the new season over the past few days with the slogan "It starts now." Not only has it now started, it has now reached a crescendo before the first opening tip of the season, and the Red Storm community would not have it any other way.

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