MORAGA, Calif. -- On the eve of his return to coaching, St. John’s coach Steve Lavin went on a stroll down memory lane in San Francisco, showing his team the postcard views of the city where he was born.
The Red Storm visited the Golden Gate Bridge and took the ferry to Alcatraz Island, and while it was all familiar for Lavin, he also knows that the team will be trapped in hostile territory Monday night when it begins the season at nearby Saint Mary’s.
The game tips off at 11 p.m. local time in sleepy Moraga, but with the Gaels now having a Sweet 16 banner hanging on the wall at McKeon Pavilion, their fans are expected to pack the place in hopes of seeing them take down a Big East team on ESPN, Lavin’s former employer.
“Because of that experience and playing on their home court, they are a very dangerous opponent,” Lavin said before leaving for the West Coast. “Mickey McConnell is an outstanding guard, one of the better guards on the West Coast. Matthew Dellavedova is also someone you have to be aware of and be mindful of in terms of where he is on the floor.
“So they're going to always be sound and solid in playing on the home court. For us, it's a great challenge and opportunity to find out where we are as a team to get an early report card.”
The roster Lavin inherited includes 10 seniors and double-digit scorers D.J. Kennedy and Dwight Hardy in the backcourt. It remains to be seen if having them play at a faster pace will help them improve on a 13th-place finish in the Big East that landed them in the NIT last season.
The Red Storm do get a boost in athleticism with the addition of freshman Dwayne Polee II, who the ex-UCLA coach Lavin lured from Los Angeles and is expected to make an impact starting at forward.
Saint Mary’s is in transition as well after losing gregarious star center Omar Samhan, who fueled the team’s run to the Sweet 16. But coach Randy Bennett does return a steady point guard in McConnell and a 3-point shooting threat in Dellavedova.
“They’re two of the smartest players I’ve coached,” Bennett said. “Their biggest talent is their leadership. Omar received a lot of the attention, and rightfully so, but they had a lot to do with the year we had. They don’t really care who gets the headlines.”
Bennett also hopes his new-look frontcourt settles in quickly. Two transfer forwards -- 6-foot-6 Rob Jones from San Diego and 6-9 Kenton Walker II from Creighton -- are expected to play major roles on the team. The two combined for 25 points and 11 rebounds in last week’s season-opening rout of the College of Idaho in their first game after redshirting.
For Lavin, it’s been seven years since he coached. He took UCLA to five Sweet 16 appearances and, after his firing, began a broadcasting career at ESPN he has called “an extended sabbatical.”
The wait to get back on the bench ends Monday night.
Editor's Note: During Monday night's game, join Leung in Tip-Off Marathon Live as he chats with and answers questions from readers while taking in the action at McKeon Pavilion.