St. John's can't wait for Lavin's return

NEW YORK -- A year ago, the St. John's table at Big East media day was swarmed by reporters and cameras, eating up every last word from new coach Steve Lavin.

At the 2011 edition, held Wednesday at the New York Athletic Club in midtown Manhattan, there wasn't quite as much foot traffic leading to the Red Storm.

A big reason was the absence of Lavin, as he continues to recover from Oct. 6 prostate cancer surgery. St. John's is still not sure when Lavin will return to the team.

"That's hard to answer," said assistant coach Mike Dunlap, who spoke in Lavin's place Wednesday. "[But] I know that he'll be around soon, because I can tell his energy levels are increasing."

Dunlap is running practices in Lavin's place, but the head coach is still very much involved in the day-to-day operations of the team. St. John's videotapes every practice, then sends a DVD to Lavin's Manhattan apartment. Lavin watches, and in the evening gives Dunlap instructions on what he wants the next day.

"We're really constantly communicating," Dunlap said. "It's great to have him, because he does it in a very non-emotional way. He's removed, so the actual silver lining is, he can see things that we can't see because we're in the eye of the hurricane."

St. John's is also fortunate to have an assistant with head coaching experience. Dunlap won two national championships in his nine years at the helm of Division II Metropolitan State in Denver.

"Coach Dunlap, he's a perfectionist," said freshman forward Moe Harkless, one of two St. John's players in attendance Wednesday. "Everything has to be perfect with this guy. I like that about him. We need someone like that to make us better."

It was also notable who St. John's brought to media day (Harkless and fellow newcomer God'sgift Achiuwa) and who they did not bring -- junior Malik Stith, the only holdover from last year's team who received any significant playing time.

The 2011-12 edition of the Red Storm truly will be defined by the four freshmen (Harkless, Sir'Dominic Pointer, D'Angelo Harrison and Phil Greene) and two junior college transfers (Achiuwa and Nurideen Lindsey).

"I like 'em. I think that they've got a great future here," special assistant Gene Keady, who was also on hand Wednesday, said of the six new players. "We're anticipating them to win, just like any other team. It's gonna be fun to see what happens."

With only eight scholarship players on the roster, including former walk-on Jamal White, St. John's held an open tryout Sunday morning at 6 a.m. and will be adding players from that tryout to the roster. But the school is still going through the NCAA compliance procedures to get some of those players officially cleared, and has not revealed the names as of yet.

That said, Dunlap did reveal that the team has begun scrimmaging, finally able to go five-on-five after adding the walk-ons. But they are also spending a lot of time practicing offensive and defensive sets 5-on-0.

"We've done more dry-running -- we stole that from Hubie Brown," Dunlap said. "What that means is, you go a lot of 5-on-0 and scripted. One, it keeps them away from injury. Two is, we have a whole new team, so we have to teach according to clarity. So the more reps we get in on our man defense, or a certain set play, the better off it is for the players.

"We've tried to teach according to the [Vince] Lombardi theory of simplicity with execution. So just keep it simple and don't go too fast, and that's been received well by these young players."

Dunlap also stressed that, with such a thin bench, trying to keep the players out of foul trouble will be "the top priority." The players must move their feet on defense and not reach -- but that's easier said than done.

"If you looked at our recruiting, and the new players that we have -- if you drew a column on defense/offense, you would say that they are more offensively inclined," Dunlap said. "That's the good news. I think we won't suffer from trying to score. But from the defensive standpoint we have a lot of work to do."

The players sounded encouraged by how practices are going thus far. "Definitely happy with what I've seen," Harkless said. "It's been pretty tough, adjusting to the level of intensity and everything. But I feel excited and optimistic about this season."

"Practice has gone real well," Achiuwa said. "The coaches are trying to push us. We're a young team, we're new to the Big East, so they're trying to make us understand what the competition is going to look like."

The truth is, there's no way for these players to know what it's like to endure the rigors of the Big East until they've experienced it for themselves. That is likely why St. John's was picked to finish 12th in the 16-team conference by the league's coaches in the preseason poll released Wednesday -- another reason for the relative lack of attention on the Red Storm.

"I feel like with what we have, we're gonna surprise a lot of people," Harkless said. "I just wanna go out there and prove people wrong."

No one can predict how this brand-new squad is going to perform until the lights come on and the games begin. But with Lavin at the helm, one thing's for sure: People will be watching.

But first, Lavin needs to get back in the saddle.

"We really miss his leadership, we miss his enthusiasm, we miss his teaching skills," Keady said. "We need to get him back."