For years, Steve Lavin's connections, convincing salesmanship, and exuberance connected him to high school players - helping him recruit against some of the nation's best for talent. A long list of NBA players learned under him at UCLA, and now at St. John's, and that recruiting skill is what has kept Steve Lavin winning games in both schools.
Recruiting was Lavin's strength when he came to St. John's, his calling card, the saving grace despite all of the negatives written about him in 2010 and earlier (which we addressed at the time - and why he could be a very good hire for St. John's).
And despite that, Lavin will not return to the St. John's sidelines, as the school turns to different faces to bring the Red Storm program to a point where it can challenge for a Big East title and be relevant on the court, despite three 20-win seasons, two NCAA Tournament berths and a pair of fifth-place finishes in league play (last year the team was tied for third, but fifth in the postseason seeding).
The postseason record may be poor - but getting to the postseason is better than what St. John's was doing in the past, in the tougher 16-team Big East.
Complaints about coaching and player development may be valid, but every program's fans complain about schemes and who should be emerging.
This coaching change came in part because Lavin wanted more money in an extension than St. John's wanted to give him (an amorphous description that doesn't speak to whether the program wanted to lowball him, whether Lavin thought he was worth more, or whether Lavin wanted to leave and did it by making wild demands).
But the change wouldn't have happened if the decision-makers were satisfied with how Lavin used his strengths to improve the program. It's not exactly the wins and losses that led to dissatisfaction - though there have been a number of untimely losses - but the effort in recruiting and the future.
It would take blind faith to believe that Lavin could maintain the level of play and the success of the past two years, mostly because of how recruiting had become a real weak point for the coach, with choices of focus, late scrambles and possibly poor evaluation led to inconsistent results, on- and off-court drama and a roster in 2015 that is filled with "playing time" more than it is filled with Big East-level players.
It's the recruiting
Let's be frank.
What Steve Lavin can do, at his best, is identify top talents, bring them in, and manage their egos and needs toward making an effective unit. And Steve Lavin is good enough to do it to a level where his sometimes-suspect coaching acumen is outweighed by his team's talent. (That coaching is at times underrated; he did transform St. John's into a solid offensive team this season, has had very good defensive squads.)
Identify and sign talent is what Lavin did at first, bringing in the #3 ranked recruiting class in the major services and starting work on the next class. He was in the finals for Kyle Anderson, had Rico Gathers committed, had Darrick Wood. The 2012 class looked strong.
Then it all went south.
Kyle Anderson committed to UCLA.
Lavin got prostate cancer, went through cancer treatments.
A reason for an accelerated return could be a way to salvage the program's current image. Lavin, one of the most prominent recruiters in the country, most likely feels that prospective athletes want security in knowing the charismatic leader is healthy.
The day he issued a statement about his return was the day that impact 2012 recruit Rico Gathers decommitted. (Also when Norvel Pelle committed, then decommitted.)
From that point, Lavin filled out the roster, but was always picking up his recruits on the late end of the cycle, the time when coaches reach for players who are fringe talents at their level, where players that other coaches back off from are picked up.
2102 Felix Balamou and Jakarr Sampson pledged to St. John's in March, JUCO teammates Orlando Sanchez and Marc-Antoine Bourgault in April, Chris Obekpa (Balamou's HS teammate) in June after a recruiting fight with Cincinnati, the last team also recruiting Obekpa, and the unheralded Christian Jones in July.
Orlando Sanchez was ineligible for most of the year, possibly indicating why other teams backed off of him.
2013 In 2013, Lavin recruited Rysheed Jordan all year, and picked him up in April after Amir Garrett transferred back west.
2014 By September of 2013, St. John's options in the 2014 class had thinned. St. John's lost out on forward Abdul Malik-Abu, guard Khadeen Carrington, center Pascal Chukwu, and then the recruiting went... very quiet. Sources say Lavin wasn't out in gyms looking at 2014 players, despite knowing that three of his players would graduate at the end of the season - including two of his big men - and two, maybe three others had their eyes on the pro ranks (Sampson, Obekpa, Jordan).
Instead, Lavin chose to focus on star talent in 2015 - when the rest of his initial class would graduate. The idea, one supposes, was that a few stars signing would get the ball rolling on a big class, even if the program those stars were signing to join looked to be barren in 2015.
It would be like 2011 again, a rebuild year with tantalizing talent.
So in 2014, Adonis Delarosa committed in April. Keith Thomas committed in May, as the Red Storm scrambled to find players late in the game to play with the talented remains of that 2011 recruiting class.
Adonis Delarosa was ineligible for the year. Keith Thomas' transcript raised red flags in other programs and turned out to be falsified.
Recruiting fell off
Somewhere, the thread was snapped. Maybe it was the inability to recover from the year with cancer, or a low energy ebb. Bad karma. Just dumb luck in dealing with high school children. But Steve Lavin, known for his contacts, seemed to struggle to find recruits in the NY/ NJ area to be interested.
No shame in that.
He struggled to get California players like Tyler Dorsey to give St. John's a real chance.
He tried Louisiana and Georgia, the northeast.
He ended up searching across the pond for players, a risky proposition. They don't always qualify after their school credits are translated to US school credits. Not every non-US player can play. And there are other schools just as well-connected overseas - and quite a few better connected overseas, with a more recognizable college basketball name.
Lavin was scrambling last year and this year to assemble a roster, looking far and wide for players. And looking that far and that wide can mean mistakes in evaluation, a willingness to forgive red flags in a players' makeup and talent in the hopes of finding a diamond in the rough who needs nurturing, life skills, a chance.
From the beginning, Lavin's search for high-end talent, talent that was more physically incredible than opponents, meant that he took a chance and a scholarship spot on a Norvel Pelle (academically far from eligible), on a Nurideen Lindsey (out of the game for years), on a Sir'Dominic Pointer (who some said was an academic eligibility risk).
Sometimes, it worked.
He tried to get players eligible through online classes.
He brought in players whose checked academic history invited scrutiny.
Talent is wonderful, but maybe there were a few too many players who were risks.
Too many risks led to instability - a team that didn't gel as Lavin worked on lineups in 2013-14, a disturbingly-thin team lacking in depth in 2014-15, a criminally-thin roster with low-impact role players in 2015-16.
What would 2015 have looked like under Lavin?
Going into 2015, that left St. John's with a number of ifs - not the mark of a stable team. There was no base upon which to stand, just the promise of recruiting and recruits after five years - basically, 2011 all over again.
And the roster was no sure thing after Isaiah Briscoe reportedly switched to Kentucky at the last minute.
And consider all the ifs for the team to be solid:
- If Rysheed Jordan, who had said on social media that he would go pro at the end of this year, returns for his junior season;
- If Jordan, a pass-second guard, matured his on-court game and became a leader, while maturing off-court and dedicating himself to practice, staying on campus, and spent less time with his posse back home;
- If Chris Obekpa improved into a solid rebounding force with occasional scoring bursts;
- If Obekpa matured his on-court game and became a leader, while not flagrantly fouling opponents or otherwise violating team rules, as he did at the beginning of the 2013-14 season and the end of this season;
- If Brandon Sampson is a ready-to-go scorer who can put up buckets against Big East opponents;
- If Samir Doughty and Sammy Barnes-Thompkins can contribute;
- If Lavin found some under-the-radar players to be early contributors like Nicola Akele;
- If Marcus LoVett committed - and was academically eligible;
- If Federico Mussini and Georgios Papagiannis decided they wanted to play American college basketball rather than playing as professionals in Europe;
- If Mussini and Papagiannis decided they wanted to do that in Queens rather than Spokane (Gonzaga) or Tuscon (Arizona) or College Park (Maryland), for bigger programs have interest in both players;
- If Amar Alibegovic, Felix Balamou, Adonis Delarosa and/ or Christian Jones became contributors on the box score, not just in the fouls column.
Some of those things could happen - especially the last one and the one about Brandon Sampson. The rest are... speculative.
And even if all those dreams came true, the team would be mostly newcomers, filled with bodies that need to get used to NCAA play, brains that need to capture the nuances of game plans against players who are far better than what each of the new players faced in the past.
Young teams don't thrive right away. The last almost-all-freshman St. John's team went 13-19.
Why would next year's team be better?
There's a strong likelihood that some of those players wouldn't make it to campus. And 2016 didn't have any early commits or recruiting leans - it is likely Lavin would have been scrambling again, scouring the nation and world for players to come to St. John's.
The new future
The next coach will have a rough year, just like Steve Lavin would have if he were at the helm with an extension.
The real meat of the matter is what happens in 2016-17.
Can a new coach get players who can make St. John's competitive that year? Can the new coach's ability to develop players and train them in team concept craft the same result that Lavin could have with the strong athletes he was bound to find?
Can a new regime connect with NYC/ NJ area coaches and talent in a way that Lavin sometimes struggled to?
Can that coach connect with players and make them believe as strongly as Steve Lavin did? Can that coach adapt to changing rosters and circumstances?
Can a new coach recruit nationally, using the framework of the star power of New York, as Lavin did?
There are a lot of "cans". But with a new coach, there is always hope - not just speculative "ifs" that fly in the face of conventional knowledge.