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Looking Back on Steve Lavin's UCLA Teams

One of the burning questions about new St. John’s coach Steve Lavin is "what will Lavin’s teams look like"? Will the team run? Will they be able to score? Can they make a move in the Big East?

It's been a while since we've seen Lavin coach. His UCLA squads were curious teams, playing various styles during his tenure with decent but not dominating success. The Bruins frustrated fans with NBA level talent but no Pac-10 conference titles, with unexpected regular season defeats followed by sudden runs in the NCAA Tournament.

Despite 6 NCAA Tournament berths in 7 years, Lavin was fired after his poor 2002-2003 season, where the Bruins went 10-19, 6-12 in the Pac 10. Along the way, UCLA lost at Pauley Pavilion to squads like San Diego (with Jason Keep + Jason Blair – I loved that team), Northern Arizona, middling squads such as St. John’s, Michigan. They also were swept by a poor USC squad (RPI: 112).

Photo credits to DawgPost, Red Storm Sports, NY Daily News, UCLA Data taken from Statsheet and

Norm RobertsSteve Lavin UCLADespite a 145-77 record (65% winning percentage) and an 81-48 conference record (62% winning percentage), Lavin has been dogged by the perception that he is a poor coach. A coach with no signature style. A recruiter with no game skills. Or a slick, sleazy guy who lucked into a job where games win themselves (that didn't seem to work for UNC under Matt Doherty).

But no matter how much an image of a laissez-faire/ cronyistic/ overwhelmed/ inept coach has followed Lavin, coaching high-end athletes is more than rolling the balls out. What were those Bruin teams' strengths and weaknesses? What might Lavin bring to the Big East?

What follows is a look at the average of UCLA’s season-ending results* with those numbers compared to Norm Roberts’ last 3 seasons at St. John’s to get a sense of what might be stylistically different between Lavin's teams and Roberts' teams.

I use the last 3 seasons because those are seasons where Roberts had a full roster of players, so the numbers won't be skewed by the player and recruit-decimated squads of his first 2+ years. I stay with in-conference stats to compare the two coaches' results in games against their peers. Note, of course, that 7 years removed from competitive coaching, a completely different conference and coaching staff, and a squad that he didn't recruit, this is not necessarily a predictor of what Steve Lavin's teams will do.

See the table and a look at the Four Factors after the jump below


* This is not an average of all the numbers, an average of the numbers/ finishes at the end of the season. The two results are only slightly different, and this approach is admittedly slightly less time-consuming for our purposes.

Conference Play Comparison
Norm Roberts (07-10, StJ) Steve Lavin (96-03, UCLA)
St John's
BE Opponents
Pac10 Opponents
Poss/ 40 minutes
Points/ Game
Free Throw Pct
3-pt Field Goal Pct
2-pt Field Goal Pct
% 3-pt Attempts
% 2-pt Attempts
Eff. Field Goal Pct
Free Throw Rate
Offensive Reb Pct
Defensive Reb Pct
Assist Pct
Assist/ Turnover
Steal Pct
Turnover Pct
Block Pct
Fouls Per Game

The maroon boxes are the factors that are notably different between the UCLA squads and the St. John's teams. And the gray boxes are the notably similar factors. Some boxes are left unshaded because I don't feel that they provide any more information than what is already highlighted.

Let's take a look at the Pace differences, and then the Four Factors: Scoring, Rebounding, Turnovers, and Free Throw Rate.


thomas vs cincyThe most obvious difference between the two styles is the pace. Roberts' teams at St. John's were closer to grinding play - even with some helter-skelter sequences and turnovers - playing a controlled pace of 66.2 possessions.

Lavin's UCLA teams sped up and down the court at a breakneck pace (in most years; they slowed down in 2001-02) that would have rivaled the fastest in college basketball this year - faster than Kansas State and even Texas, and similar to Providence.

Fans love to see fast, high-flying basketball. But in UCLA's case, high-speed play meant giving up 55 point second halves and painful blowouts to good teams that make adjustments. If speed doesn't come with discipline on defense, speed can make a bad loss look like a behind-the-shed backcountry ass-whuppin'.

Maintaining defensive principles will be something Lavin will have to improve upon if he plans to play at that kind of pace with the Red Storm.

The Skinny: At the very least, fans will enjoy watching a faster style, and hopefully fewer of those games like last year's St. John's/ Cincinnati sludge fest in the Garden. Of course, having a lot of possessions doesn't always equal taking a lot of shots; a team that gives the ball away on many possessions can have trouble scoring. Both the defensive issues and the turnovers will be covered in more detail below.


DJ Kennedy vs UGAStylistically, both teams attempted to score inside and generally avoided outside shooting. Despite their inconsistency, Lavin’s teams could score the ball at a competitive level (104.7 points per 100 possessions, on average) against their conference foes. St. John’s, despite some solid, even surprising, offensive performances, could not (a woeful 93.8 points per 100 possessions).

A good performance would have been above 100 points per 100 possessions; that 93.8 efficiency mark meant they went multiple possessions without scoring from the field or from the free throw line in a typical game.

St. John's fans remember those offensive droughts, the 5 to 10 minutes of clock time where the Red Storm couldn't manage any scoring from the field, or get to the line (or convert when they did).

The distribution of shots is similar - neither team depended heavily on the 3-pointer. But St. John’s struggled to convert the interior shots they chose to focus their offensive attack on. An average performance for teams last year (over the course of the season) would have been around a 47% conversion rate on 2-pointers. St. John’s conference numbers on 2-pointers (43.4%) are far below that; a cacophony of missed jumpers, ignored post players, stagnant halfcourt offense, errant drives, blown layups and dunks, and blocked shots.

The team was also poor at shooting 3-pointers, leading to a general inability to score (more in the section on Free Throw Rate and shooting). On defense, St. John's preferred opponents to take 2-point shots, but allowed them to convert at a high percentage inside (an average of 50.3% shooting each conference season) and out (36.4% for opponents).

Under Steve Lavin, the Bruins converted better than 50% of their shots inside the arc, and jason kaponopreferred to look for shots inside. The Bruins used players like Jason Kapono as their designated shooter and the point guard as the second shooter from distance. The three-point shooting wasn't always consistent from game to game, but from both inside and outside the arc, the team had some hot shooting games.

On defense, they allowed a larger percentage of 3-point attempts from opponents – meaning that opponents, even with that shooting percentage, could get off the kind of shots to keep them close (or keep their lead) against the Bruins. They may have defended outside and in better at UCLA than St. John's has in the past three years, but 48.8% is not an incredibly impressive number for mid-range and interior defense - it's a slight cause for concern considering the height/ athleticism they had on most of their teams.

Moreover, to win while shooting mostly 2-pointers, the defense HAS to limit the other teams’ number of outside attempts, or absolutely dominate in defending 2-point attempts. When the defense doesn’t do either of these things, you get this UCLA defense – good enough to win games when the offense works, but not good enough to dominate a conference. And when combined with offensive turnovers/ lost possessions, and more possessions where the other team can get closer or extend a lead, maintaining a lead becomes more difficult.

The Skinny: It may be partly because of talent, but the disparity between UCLA's and St. John's conversion rate on 2-pointers scored is wide. If Lavin can increase the level of offensive efficiency inside the paint, the team will compete. If he can improve on St. John's defensive efficiency as well, and be better than even his former UCLA teams, St. John's will go to the NCAA Tournament next year.


sean evans reboundSt. John’s was a slightly inferior offensive rebounding unit to Lavin’s teams, who capably used their athleticism to get second shot attempts/ offensive rebounds. Lavin’s teams were blessed with height, and used it well on the offensive glass.

But in terms of defensive rebounding, Norm Roberts’ squads were far better. They actually cleared more of the other teams’ misses in conference play than they did overall. It’s not a dominating figure like Wisconsin or Penn State (the Nittany Lions were tops in basketball at defensive rebounding percentage this past season), but the defensive rebounding was pretty dogged.

Meanwhile, UCLA was actually fairly bad at ending the other team’s possession. That average of 64.3% on defensive rebounds would have been in the bottom third of Division I basketball. Giving up offensive rebounds cut down on opportunities for the Bruins to score, while helping the other team's offensive efficiency - keeping them closer on the scoreboard despite any talent gaps.

Even when the team had dominating rebounders such as Jerome Moiso and Dan Gadzuric, the team didn't dominate the defensive glass. In fact, after Jelani McCoy left, Gadzuric was the one great rebounder the team had that played major minutes. He never averaged 27 minutes a game - fouls and fatigue got in the way - and the other rebounders were simply less impressive.

The Skinny: Second chance points can kill even the most talented teams. There seemed to be an effort on the offensive glass with Lavin's teams, but some delinquency in clearing opponents' shots. Ballers love a second chance to make their point total grow, and the defense has to end possessions. Lavin needs to maintain St. John's dogged approach on defensive rebounds to help them build a better defense.

Turnovers/ Assists/ Shot Blocking

One of St. John’s major issues was the inability to take care of the ball, giving away chances to score when they needed every chance they could get to put the ball in the hole. To a lesser extent, they didn’t force turnovers enough to make up for defensive deficiencies – though they were around the middle of the Big East in turnovers forced.

stjvsmarqUCLA’s offensive turnover percentage was actually fairly similar (21.4% on average for St. John's; 21.8% for the Bruins).

Take that in for a second.

That is NOT careful basketball.

Now, given the faster pace of UCLA, that means they turned the ball over more times in each game than St. John’s did. The Bruins were solid at scoring, but turnovers cut into the ability to put points up/ be efficient, while sometimes giving the other team an easy chance to score against a scrambling defense.

In their defense, the Bruins also forced a good number of turnovers, keeping the turnover balance a little better than even, while St. John’s were often on the losing side of the turnover battle.

earl watsonBoth teams forced around the same percentage of steals. But St. John’s lost the ball via the steal more often (an average of 11.4% of possessions each year vs. 8.5% for Lavin’s players).

UCLA had more unforced/ unstolen turnovers – things like stepping out of bounds and throwing the ball away with bad passes.

St. John’s also got their shots blocked almost twice as often as UCLA’s players did. Part of the difference would be the height disparity, but there are issues with talent and scheme. St. John’s post play tended to consist of offensive putbacks, fairly obvious drives (without a dish), and only Justin Burrell featured actual post moves to free him for a shot. So shots would get smacked right back in the Johnnies' faces.

There are similarities in the assist to turnover ratio, and in the assist rate on offense and the assist rate allowed on defense – the percentage of made shots that came from a pass. In itself, the assist rate doesn’t have to mean much. Teams can score without direct passes, like Northern Iowa and Villanova did last year. And teams that depend on assisted passes to get quality shots can find their attack stagnated against defenses, like Pittsburgh’s was. But assist rate is an indicator of being able to maintain offensive cohesion or of being able to disrupt offensive flow.

Some of UCLA's most ridiculous losses - such as the loss to Ball State in 2001, and the loss at home to Pepperdine - came when the Bruins could not force a turnover. Granted, those teams also shot very well against the Bruins, so there were multiple problems. But forcing 3 turnovers to a Ball State team that averaged 13 on the season, while at Pauley Pavilion and ranked #3, is suspect.

The Skinny: A good defense should be disruptive on their way to forcing missed shots. At the very least, a team has to win the turnover battle if they want to be successful, valuing the ball and giving themselves a chance to score. St. John's needs to improve their ball protection, and hopefully Lavin and his staff will be able to help the seniors get better. But that will require improvement in the coaching and preparation from his UCLA days.

Free Throw Rate

dwight hardy vs GeorgiaIn isolation, free throw rate is simply a question of style/ physicality of a team on offense and defense. Sometimes, it also indicates an issue with talent or fundamentals on defense or (like in the case of Fran McCaffery’s Siena team) an ability to anticipate and control the other team’s offense. St. John’s could have used more free throw attempts to help their woeful offensive attack; and on defense, a lower free throw rate could have helped them restrict scoring a little more.

This year’s Red Storm was much worse at drawing fouls than the number above indicates, taking free throws at a rate of 31.5% of field goal attempts. DJ Kennedy and Justin Burrell got to the line in conference play frequently as a percentage of their shot attempts. But no one else did - they couldn't get the refs to blow the whistle.

UCLA’s teams got to the line a decent amount on offense. But they allowed a decent chunk of free throws, though that seemed to be a more constant problem earlier on in Lavin's career in Westwood. That could also indicate more lax defense, porous pressing, or a number of problems. Again, allowing or NOT allowing free throws aren't necessarily an indicator of success, but they can indicate problems in the defense.

The Skinny: Neither team shot well from the free throw line - around 64.7% each. That kind of deficiency will allow teams to hang around when they shouldn't. Perfection from the free throw line is implausible. But shooting well from the line allows a team to steal a close game, just as ineptitude allows a team to slump in the locker room, wondering what if.



On the plus side, Lavin's UCLA teams were consistently playing fast, putting up shots. The scoreboard didn't get cheated. And the teams scored solidly from all over the floor. The offenses were good, and rebounded on the offensive end well, but hurt themselves with the turnover.

On the negative side is the defense of Lavin's teams in Westwood. Between the extra free throws at the high pace (meaning more attempts) and the extra three-point shots, you can see why UCLA tended to give up bunches of points. And those points are not evenly spread over the season; those problems sometimes come to rear their head in different games. One game was a flurry of three-pointers from Stanford. Another, a parade of free throws from Arizona State. Yet another would be a post beating and dunkfest from Fred Jones and Oregon. Consistency of scheme and effort will be necessary, and we should look to see that the team is working on core concepts to stop the other team from scoring.

Lastly, rebounding in a fast-paced game is different than rebounding in a slower paced game. It is harder to find the opponent and put a body on them. Defenses have to set up and adjust more quickly, and rebounders have to look to finish the possession on both ends. UCLAs teams needed to be better at rebounding the ball on the defensive end. And St. John's tenacity at defensive rebounding can't be lost to the freedom of running.

So first and foremost, I would expect to see Steve Lavin up the pace with St. John's and use the athleticism that has been there. From top to bottom, the Red Storm has athletes who may just be better running; Sean Evans' halfcourt game, for example is less impressive than his speed at his size. Their crispness in the halfcourt leaves some to be desired. More than putting up points, St. John's needs to put up points with consistency and avoid those second-half lulls the squad often suffered.

The more I look at the numbers Lavin's teams put up, I can't help but feel a bit hopeful for the Red Storm's future. I have no idea how it will translate with athletes Lavin did not recruit, but the Red Storm can run, even if the recent staff wanted them to run in spurts. This might be a delightful year coming up, with 9 seniors with something to prove.