Lavin talks up new team at St. John's

Steve Lavin is ready to stop talking about cancer, and start talking about his team.

Lavin steered the conversation away from his personal health, and toward his new group of players, at St. John’s media day Tuesday at Carnesecca Arena.

“The strength of this team is the balance,” Lavin said. “It may be the deepest, most balanced team I’ve coached in my career.”

A year ago, St. John’s limped to a 13-19 finish. The Red Storm ended the season with just a six-man rotation, after three incoming recruits were declared ineligible at the start, and two other players quit along the way.

But five members of that six-man rotation are back. And Lavin has added to the mix eight newcomers, who were made available to reporters for the first time on Tuesday.

Among them is 6-foot-8 freshman forward JaKarr Sampson, ranked the No. 32 high school senior in the nation in his graduating class by ESPN. “It just feels like a family when I’m here,” said Sampson, of his time at St. John’s thus far. “On the court or off the court, it just feels like a family.”

The head of the family, Lavin, is back after missing almost all of last season recuperating from prostate cancer. Lavin is now cancer-free, and said last week at Big East media day that his physical stamina is back to “probably 75 percent.” But Gene Keady, the legendary former Purdue coach and Lavin’s mentor, currently serving as a special assistant at St. John’s, said Tuesday that Lavin is better than ever.

“I think he’s so happy to be healed and well, he’s got more exuberance about him, more enthusiasm,” Keady said. “He’s happy to be back. So when you have that, you show it, and he certainly shows it.”

The players, veterans and newbies alike, agree. Nearly everyone interviewed on Tuesday used the same word when talking about Lavin.

“Just his energy,” said Sampson, when asked what he likes about his new coach. “He’s jumpy, he’s hyper and he brings a lot of energy.”

“Coach Lav, he’s enthusiastic,” said fellow freshman forward Christian Jones. “Everything we do, he’s energetic. He gets down on the floor, he does everything we do. It motivates all of us.”

“It’s totally different,” said sophomore guard Phil Greene, comparing this year to last year. “He brings a different energy to it. It’s more exciting. Basically more fun. You want to play. It’s not like a job. “

“He just makes things better, because he’s a good motivator,” Greene added. “He can motivate you to do anything. With Coach here, it’s just a lot of fun.”

Lavin, meanwhile, is enjoying the process of getting to know the new arrivals, and working hands-on with the older players after a year away. He said Tuesday there are 11 players fighting for playing time right now in a competitive preseason.

“Last year was D’Angelo [Harrison] and Maurice [Harkless], they were the one-two punch. And it was a pleasant surprise when other players stepped up and contributed,” said Lavin. “But with this group, each day in practice we see someone else emerge that has a dominant performance.”

Despite the fact that St. John’s lost Harkless, the Big East Freshman of the Year, to the NBA, and has nine freshmen and sophomores, Lavin is optimistic. “Our staff feels strongly that it’s a group we can move forward quickly enough to be competitive by the time the Big East conference rolls around,” he said.

As for his own performance, Lavin said he wouldn’t coach this team any differently after his battle with cancer. But he did make one admission.

“Being on the floor with the players and back with our coaching staff, there’s that sense of camaraderie which was missing last year in my life because I wasn’t able to participate on a daily basis with the team,” Lavin said. “Now to be able to come back -- be in the fold with our staff and players on a daily basis and participate in the way that I wasn’t able to last year -- makes it more gratifying.”