‘Because of our youth’: Steve Lavin isn’t embarrassed by the play of St. John’s

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Steve Lavin. (Howard Megdal)
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On Saturday morning, St. John's and Georgetown faced the kind of game that helps to define a season.

St. John's, a young team with some frontline talent and defensive prowess but little offensive depth, had managed an attention-getting 53-52 win at Cincinnati, a ranked team, on January 5. But after losing a very winnable game at home against Rutgers, the Red Storm needed to beat Georgetown to avoid a 1-3 start in the Big East, with a tough road to follow.

As for Georgetown, one of the surprise teams during December, the Hoyas needed a win over St. John's to avoid an 0-3 start in the league. The Hoyas had just lost at home to Pittsburgh, 73-45, the worst home loss by the program in roughly 40 years. And the Hoyas, a team with some frontline talent and defensive prowess but little depth, would need to do it without starter Greg Whittington, one of the team's three main scorers, who'd been suspended for unspecified reasons.

But the superficial similarities of the two teams quickly gave way to a clear reality once the 11 A.M. tipoff came. Georgetown has more talent, more depth, and the template to win consistently. And St. John's, despite the presence of some encouraging new players, still doesn't. The Hoyas raced out to a 33-11 lead, and the Red Storm never challenged them in what was a 67-51 thumping at Madison Square Garden.

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For the Hoyas, victory meant some scoring from Markel Starks (17 points), a bit of everything from Otto Porter (19 points, 14 rebounds, three steals and two assists) and just enough bench production (most notably, eight points and ten rebounds from Devauntes Smith-Rivera). A season-long ability to limit the opposition's three-point shooting was evident as well; St. John's missed their first 11 tried from deep, and few of them were uncontested. Missing Whittington, and a season-long lack of production from their centers, wasn't nearly enough to derail Georgetown.

"I like the way we played today," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said at his postgame news conference. "There's still a lot that we have to keep getting better at, adjust to. But today's template, your word, was pretty good."

For St. John's, though, the path to victory is still uncertain. Georgetown managed to utilize a zone that often folded D'Angelo Harrison, the Red Storm's best offensive option, into double coverage routinely. The result was a 3-for-12 shooting day from Harrison, including 0-for-5 from three, and seven total points.

That left some other players open, and notably point guard transfer Jamal Branch had 16 points. But most of those came late, with St. John's slow to adjust to finding someone other than Harrison or Jakarr Sampson, their only other player averaging double-figure scoring this year, to put the ball in the basket.

So even during a game in which the defensive stalwart center Chris Obekpa grabbed ten rebounds and blocked six shots, the latter setting a St. John's single-season record despite only half the season complete, that still wasn't enough for St. John's to stay competitive, let alone beat, a solid Georgetown team.

"Georgetown came in, and got off to a great start, and then maintained the lead for the majority of the game," an even-tempered Steve Lavin, the St. John's coach, said following the game. "It was a dominating performance by Georgetown. We got taken to the woodshed."

Oddly, a number of reporters repeatedly asked Lavin if he was embarrassed by his team's performance, even though little within the game suggested the difference had to do with effort, rather than talent. Lavin repeatedly dismissed the idea of embarrassment as "hyperbole".

"Nothing will surprise me," Lavin said of his team's play this season, which has ranged from wins over Cincinnati and a rout of South Carolina to losses against U.N.C.-Asheville and San Francisco. "Because of our youth, this will be a roller coaster ride. I've really said from the start, you have to buckle up and expect the unexpected from this group."

Later in the presser, he added in a nod to the limited depth his team has on hand this year, "I came into the season with open eyes. I've watched a lot of college basketball through the years. I know what happened today. It's not that complicated."

Another reporter asked about the unprecedented nature of this blowout for Lavin's tenure, which seemed to ignore that St. John's had lost two games by this margin or greater already this season, along with a number of such losses in the past.

"We've gotten blown out a bunch of times, didn't we?", Lavin said with a self-deprecating smile. The reporter protested, "Not like this," and Lavin replied, "We did, we did" before launching into the litany.

"Look back, there's plenty, there's plenty," Lavin said, clearly amused at having to point out the low points of his own tenure. "We took some--I think Georgetown dominated us up there by 20-plus, at Georgetown my first year," correctly referencing a 77-52 loss to the Hoyas back in 2011. "Syracuse pasted us a couple of times," he continued, referring to a 76-59 loss in 2011 and 95-70 loss in 2012. 

"If you coach long enough, you're going to get beat bad some," Lavin concluded. "What was the final margin, 16? I mean, I'm gonna lose by 16 again in my career at some point. I don't want to, trust me, I want to win every game. But the odds are, this will happen again."

Even still, a method for St. John's to compete appeared to emerge in the later stages of the second half, with the St. John's press leading to a number of Georgetown turnovers and easy transition baskets. The problem with that approach all the time is a St. John's roster with just seven players earning more than 13 minutes per game. The Red Storm simply doesn't have the waves of players to throw at such a high-energy defensive effort. Yet.

If St. John's can return the talent they possess this season, they could have some high-profile help coming, with Lavin in the mix for a number of quality players, including a pair of ESPN Top 100 recruits. Added to several transfers expected to be eligible in the fall, and Lavin, at that point a year removed from his battle with prostate cancer, should finally have the team most expected him to have shortly after he took the St. John's job back in 2010.

In the meantime, though, Lavin's group is likely to continue moving between unexpected challenges of the elite, and disspiriting letdowns.

"We'd like to win games this year," Lavin said. "And we'd also like to think about long-term, the development process, for the program. So it's a fine line there... We'll learn from this, too."