St. John’s basketball gets Lavin back, which is a start

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Steve Lavin. (Howard Megdal)
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When Steve Lavin last coached St. John's on February 8, his team defeated Connecticut to move within striking distance of an N.C.A.A. tournament berth.

Since then, the program's progress has stalled, due largely to circumstances beyond basketball. 

Lavin's father, Cap, passed away last weekend, taking Lavin away from the team during critical games against Louisville and Syracuse.

"It was just nice to be back with the team," Lavin said in a media availability on Tuesday. "As important as it was to spend time with my siblings and my mother, because that was the appropriate thing to do given my father’s passing, equally as important was to get back with the team and my staff and continue to move down the path as we try to accomplish some special things. We’re still in pursuit of the postseason and doing something special come March."

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That pursuit of something special come March was delayed, if not actually derailed, by Lavin's absence. And in fact it appears to be back on track following Wednesday night's 69-54 victory over South Florida, at Carnesecca Arena.

St. John's probably wasn't going to win either game Lavin missed, but the program has managed unlikely upsets under Lavin before. And a win in either contest would have gone a long way toward seeing St. John's close in on that tournament at-large bid.

What the two losses didn't do was eliminate St. John's from contention. Following the Connecticut win, St. John's had a Ratings Percentage Index ranking of 59; the two losses against highly-ranked Syracuse and Louisville actually improved their overall standing, to 58.

But that is well shy of the R.P.I. in the 30s or 40s that is usually necessary to secure an at-large bid. At present, E.S.P.N. Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has them as the fifth team out of the field. Fortunately, they'll get the chance to nail down some R.P.I-boosting wins.

St. John's have four games left in the regular season, along with however many games they can play in the Big East tournament, on their alternate home floor, Madison Square Garden.

Wednesday night against South Florida at Carnesecca Arena was the easiest of the bunch, with the Bulls entering at just 10-15, and a 130 R.P.I. A road game against surging Providence would give St. John's a more impressive win than the Friars' R.P.I. of 86 currently makes it seem. And the remaining three games, against Notre Dame (R.P.I. of 50), Pittsburgh (32) and Marquette (14) are each chances to further bolster that resume.

A split of the remaining four games would leave St. John's with a 10-8 record in the Big East. Only twice since 2005-06 has 10 wins in the Big East failed to get a team entry into the N.C.A.A. field.

However it shakes out, just having Lavin around for the stretch run is something of a victory in itself. He missed nearly all of last season battling prostate cancer, and the resulting absence led to some transfers and a largely lost season. This year, just as his team appeared to be figuring things out, the tragedy of losing his father kept him from the team again.

"He went through a tough stretch," sophomore Sir'Domonic Pointer said Tuesday. "I haven’t lost a family member personally, but that’s a hard thing to come back from. Having him back was great. Seeing him for the first time yesterday brought the energy back."