Fans welcome back Steve Lavin

NEW YORK -- Steve Lavin returned to the bench at Carnesecca Arena on Friday night, the latest step in his comeback from cancer.

Lavin received a rousing round of applause from the crowd of 3,158 upon being introduced, along with his new St. John's team, as part of the school's 2012 Red Storm Tip-Off event -- celebrating the first day of practice of the college basketball season.

"Feeding off the players' energy was an uplifting experience," Lavin said. "Just how hyped they were and happy for each other -- it was a palpable energy."

Many of the players showed off their best dance moves while being introduced. The mood was different than this night one year ago, when Lavin was conspicuously absent, just eight days removed from prostate surgery. The coach ended up missing all but four games last season, including the final 27, after suffering a setback in his recovery.

"Having that kind of energy towards the end, especially when Lav came out, to feel the crowd and the team, it was like a buzz," said sophomore guard D'Angelo Harrison, the team's top returning scorer. "It was just good to have him back."

Lavin pronounced himself cancer-free and ready to get back to work at a charity event on campus three weeks ago. Now he begins the process of molding this group into an NCAA tournament team.

"It's like Christmas Eve -- shaking the presents, trying to figure out what the gifts are," Lavin said of Friday night's festivities. "It's a good reminder to us to remember that it's a game. There's gonna be plenty of hardship ahead over the course of a season, but tonight was about joy, celebrating the tip-off of our season."

Lavin's absence wasn't St. John's only problem at this time one year ago. The program also had just eight scholarship players after three top recruits were ruled ineligible in September. The Red Storm couldn't even scrimmage for fans at the event last year because they didn't have enough guys to go 5-on-5.

That wasn't a problem Friday night, with five returnees joined by eight newcomers, including three that were ESPN 100 recruits as high school seniors.

Lavin divvied up his veterans, pairing Harrison and swingman Sir'Dominic Pointer on the red team, while putting fellow swingman Amir Garrett and forward God'sgift Achiuwa on the white team. The fifth vet, guard Phil Greene, sat out the scrimmage because of a nagging hip injury.

The eight new players were also split up between the two teams. They played two five-minute halves, with the red squad ending up on top, 21-14.

This team will be significantly deeper than it was a year ago, when St. John's was down to just a six-man rotation late. It also will be bigger, with the addition of 6-foot-9 forwards Orlando Sanchez and Chris Obekpa. The latter, known for his shot-blocking ability in high school, gave fans a sneak peek of that Friday.

Freshman swingman JaKarr Sampson sent the crowd into a frenzy with a couple of highlight-worthy dunks, while junior college transfer Marco Bourgault buried a pair of 3-pointers.

There was plenty for the fans to be excited about. But the Red Storm again will be one of the youngest teams in the country, with almost their entire roster comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

"Most publications, for good reason, are picking us (to finish) 10th to 15th (in the Big East), because they're aware we're so young," Lavin said. "But I think if we continue to work hard, play a cohesive brand of basketball, and mature or come of age soon enough in this season, then we're capable of doing some special things."

The first day of practice is always a day to be optimistic. You can't blame Lavin for feeling that way, considering what he's been through in the past year.

"I'm looking forward and eager to set sail on another journey with this group of young men," Lavin said. "You can tell they have really good synergy. Coaches always say, 'We've got great kids.' No one ever says they have bad kids. But this is one of those special groups."

And it's a group with its coach back, as it embarks on the road to March, and maybe even some Madness.