JAMAICA, N.Y.–As St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin jogged out of the tunnel during his introduction at the Red Storm’s Midnight Madness festivities Friday night, McFadden & Whitehead’s hit song “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” boomed in the background, fittingly marking Lavin’s first big, public moment with the team in nearly a year.
Lavin underwent prostate cancer last October and returned to coach sparingly during the first part of last season before taking time to recover and focus on the recruiting trail. He missed last season’s event, which took place shortly after he underwent surgery.
“Feeding off the players’ energy is an uplifting experience,” he said. “It reminds you of the joy that team sports can bring. Seeing those kids as they watch their team members go out…it was a palpable energy.”
Friday night’s appearance was met with an uproarious applause from the nearly 3,200 in attendance at St. John’s on-campus Carnesecca Arena and, after the event, Lavin was back in rare form with the media, speaking in his patented off-the-cuff metaphors and similes.
“It’s like Christmas Eve, shaking the presents and trying to figure out what they are,” he joked. “Easter egg hunts or Halloween, putting the gear on for the first time. All those things that bring joy to young people.”
The event at Carnesecca Friday night gave the public its first glance at Lavin’s latest top-10 recruiting class, which is led by athletic post-graduate JaKarr Sampson and late signee Chris Obekpa, a shot-blocking presence that St. John’s lacked last season.
A young and inexperienced Red Storm team finished 13-19 in 2011-12 and, though they lost centerpiece Moe Harkless to the NBA, return leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison.
Harrison becomes the clear team leader after averaging 16.8 points per game last season. Expect Harrison to see time at the point guard spot, though he is more of a natural shooting guard.
During St. John’s run to the NCAA tournament in 2009-10, Lavin put a similar player and scorer, Dwight Hardy, at the point guard spot with good results. Texas A&M transfer Jamal Branch is also eligible to play in December, which could solve some of the depth chart issues in the backcourt.
The Red Storm also lost assistant coach Mike Dunlap to the NBA, as he took a job to become that franchise’s next head coach. Darrick Martin, a former NBA point guard who has ties to Lavin’s time at UCLA, takes Dunlap’s spot on the bench.
St. John’s was picked to finish 10th in the preseason media poll, released Tuesday, just ahead of Rutgers and slightly behind Connecticut.
Much of the Red Storm’s success this season will depend on the development of its youth, namely Harrison, elite defender Sir’Dominic Pointer, guard Phil Greene, and swingman Amir Garrett, all of whom are now sophomores.
“With every optimistic remark that I make about an individual or collectively, I temper that with the harsh reality that it’s the youngest team…in the country,” Lavin said. “We’ll have to go through all the trials and tribulations that young teams do.”
But, as much of the focus was Friday, much can be said about the impact Lavin has now that he is back on the sidelines.
“We have our leader back,” said Garrett. “When he was out last year, it was sad. But now he’s back and ready to go.”
The Red Storm open their season on Nov. 13 at home against Detroit.