When St. John's was busy losing to Syracuse and Louisville last week, there was something missing.
The Red Storm's head coach Steve Lavin missed both games while he was visiting family in California in mourning of his father, Cap Lavin's, passing.
Lavin's absence reminded many of a year ago, when the young Johnnies trudged through the rugged Big East schedule without their leader while he was recovering from prostate cancer surgery. This team, a combined 11-19 without Lavin in two seasons, was missing the same thing last week that it was the last time around.
Their coach wasn't fighting the battle with them. They were bereft of that subliminal confidence. For the lack of a better word, bereft of that swag.
But now Lavin is back. Back from the cancer. Back from the appropriate time spent with his mother and five siblings.
And the timing couldn't be any better. St. John's (15-10, 7-6 Big East) is set to face Big East dweller South Florida at Carnesecca Arena on Wednesday night in a virtual must-win situation, the beginning of a five-game stretch run that will define the Johnnies' season.
"It's just nice to be back with the team. As important as it was to spend time with my family, because that was the appropriate thing to do for my father, it's equally as important for me to get back with my basketball family," Lavin said in his first meeting with the media since returning to New York late on Sunday night.
Lavin met with the team on Monday before an early-afternoon practice. He spent time thanking them for their collective support and reviewing their position heading into the final games of the regular season.
"Seeing him come back [on Monday] was great. It brought all of the energy back," Sir`Dominic Pointer reflected on Tuesday. "We wanted to win both games without him. We were playing for him."
But now, St. John's has to play for themselves. If they want any shot at making the NCAA Tournament in mid-March, they will have to take care of business on Wednesday night and possibly steal one or two before the Big East Tournament commences on March 12th.
"We have no more or fewer [concerns about South Florida] than we would for any other game," Lavin said. "What we talked about yesterday was putting it into context that we lost two three of the top teams in our conference. Although we would have loved to have won at a Syracuse or Georgetown, it's important that we don't overreact."
ESPN expert bracketologist Joe Lunardi's most recent projections place St. John's outside of the proverbial bubble. It's no secret that if the Red Storm makes it, they would have done so by earning it.
Step one is complete. The Johnnies have their leader back, and they understand what that really means.
"The support that [the team] provided was something that I'll never forget," Lavin continued. "The players that went through my health challenges last year have been so supportive. This isn't something you script. But those things happen in life."
Phil Greene IV believes that St. John's has to finish strong if they want to make the NCAA Tournament. With Lavin back in the fold, it's as possible as it's ever going to be.
For Lavin, it's getting better each day. He's back to 100 percent focus on St. John's basketball.
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