NEW YORK -- From about 10:15 a.m. until a couple of minutes before noon Wednesday, Steve Lavin was surrounded.
At the Big East's annual media day at Madison Square Garden, Lavin held court at the St. John's table for more than 90 minutes as swarms of media folks flocked around him, gobbling up every word that emerged from his mouth. Even when he got up from the table to head to another area of the building for his TV interview session (for which he was already 20 minutes late), people kept flagging him down to chat.
Lavin was, without question, one of the stars of the show Wednesday -- just one more sign that the renaissance of St. John's basketball is under way.
Another positive sign for the Red Storm? They have been picked to finish sixth in the 16-team Big East in the preseason coaches' poll. St. John's had not been picked higher than ninth in the preseason poll since 2002-03.
If that seems a tick too optimistic, you're probably right. St. John's will have almost the exact same personnel this season as it had last season, when it finished 13th in the conference. The one major difference is the head coach and his staff. It just goes to show how much enthusiasm Lavin has generated in a few short months on the job.
The three players who joined Lavin on Wednesday at the Garden -- swingman D.J. Kennedy, shooting guard Paris Horne and point man Malik Boothe, all seniors -- certainly seem excited.
"The fans, the school -- just everyone surrounding the St. John's program is excited," said Kennedy, the team's leading scorer last season (15.1 points per game), who also was named second-team preseason All-Big East. "Everyone is looking forward to a great year."
Since Lavin was hired in March, most of the attention given to the program has focused on recruiting. And Lavin has made great strides in that area. So far, he has gotten five commitments from the Class of 2011, and four of those players are rated among the top 100 in their class in the entire country, according to ESPNU.
That said, Lavin also has the present team and his maiden season in the Big East to concern himself with. He has 10 seniors on his roster and very little time to implement his system before St. John's first game, on Nov. 16 at Saint Mary's (Calif.).
"Twenty-two opportunities -- two scrimmages, an exhibition, 19 practice days to prepare to play on the road against a Sweet 16 team from last year that beat Villanova and returns four or five starters," is how Lavin described the daunting task ahead of him.
This season's team will definitely try to play up tempo, on both sides of the ball. On offense, the players will push the ball up the floor and look for fast-break opportunities. On defense, they will pick up full court at times and try to create turnovers. (Click here to read a team preview.)
Former Purdue coach Gene Keady, who officially joined the program last week as a special assistant and adviser to Lavin, has been impressed by what he has seen in the first few days of practice.
"They seem to enjoy Steve's teaching," Keady said. "It looks like they want to learn. And when you have that kind of attitude, you'll be OK. You have a chance to win some games."
The schedule will not be easy. Besides the rigorous slate of Big East games, St. John's also will host the defending national champ, Duke, on Jan. 30 at Madison Square Garden. And the Red Storm will travel across the country to play Lavin's former squad, UCLA, on Feb. 5.
"This will be the most difficult schedule that I've ever prepared a team for in my career," Lavin said. "I think it presents a good opportunity for us to build for the postseason. There's gonna be enough tough, challenging tests to get a report card and get a sense for where we are as a team, and be able to still have enough time to move forward as we point towards playing our best basketball come March."
The big question is, will this team be playing in the NCAA tournament come March? St. John's hasn't been to the Big Dance since 2002, but Lavin was brought in to make that happen, and on a regular basis.
"It really would mean a lot," Boothe said. "I think as we were recruited to come here, that's what we all had in our minds. To get to the tournament and make a run. ... I think we really can make that run [this year]."
If St. John's does finish sixth in the Big East, the Red Storm almost certainly will be dancing. But we're getting way ahead of ourselves here. Let's wait and watch it all unfold on the floor, starting Nov. 16.
One thing's for sure, though. For St. John's and Steve Lavin, media day was a great success.