Bluegrass-bound SJU bands together

NEW YORK -- St. John's faces a season full of challenges over the next four months.

Thursday's might be the biggest of them all.

The Red Storm -- with a rotation just seven players deep -- will take on the top-ranked team in the country, the Kentucky Wildcats, at Lexington's famed Rupp Arena.

And now they'll do it without their head coach.

As first reported by ESPN's Andy Katz late Monday night, Steve Lavin has decided to take an indefinite leave of absence from coaching St. John's as he continues to recuperate from his Oct. 6 prostate cancer surgery.

Lavin returned to the Red Storm in time for their second game of the season, against Lehigh on Nov. 9, and coached the team's next three games. But he missed the last two, and now has officially decided to step away.

Lavin was not made available to reporters on Tuesday afternoon during St. John's pre-Kentucky news conference, but did an on-air interview with WFAN's Mike Francesa.

"You don't know until you jump up on that horse, whether or not you're at a point where you're ready," Lavin said. "And naturally the competitive side of me wanted to come back as soon as possible. And the adrenaline gets going in those games, and each game the energy was diminished, the stamina was diminished, and the bigger concern was I wasn't recovering between games."

The good news is that Lavin is cancer-free. He will continue to attend team practices and go on recruiting trips. He just won't return to the sideline for games until he feels back at full strength -- and he won't put any kind of time frame on that.

"I learned a valuable lesson the first time around by coming back too soon and getting caught up in the dates or the calendars or certain opponents and trying to time things," Lavin said Tuesday. "I'm now going to avoid that."

The players were informed earlier on Tuesday that Lavin would not be accompanying them to Lexington for Thursday's game. Those who spoke with the media expressed confidence that they could overcome the loss of Lavin in the days and weeks ahead.

"His personality just brings a whole different feel," freshman forward Moe Harkless said. "But it's pretty much the same coaching style, same information that we're getting from the coaches. It's just a different face."

Without Lavin, the "face" the players will be listening to is assistant Mike Dunlap, who has coached the team in the three games Lavin has missed. Dunlap has plenty of head-coaching experience himself, having won two Division II national championships in nine seasons at Metropolitan State College in Denver between 1997 and 2006.

"They were good," Dunlap said of the players' reactions when they heard the news about Lavin. "We just kinda go about our business each day. And I don't want to paint our players as machine-like, 'cause they're not, but I think that they're really gonna feed off of our energy levels. And we have a tendency as a staff to have a lot of energy."

The short-handed Red Storm will need near-nuclear levels of energy to pull off an upset Thursday night. The 6-0 Wildcats are scoring 84.2 points per game, beating opponents by 30 points per game. And they've averaged 22,520 fans per game over their first three games at Rupp.

That's quite a setup for St. John's first road game of the season -- with six of its seven players in their first season of Division I basketball, no less.

In fact, the Red Storm are so young and inexperienced, the coaching staff won't even place a great deal of emphasis on scouting the Wildcats.

"We're still in a phase of teaching our system, so the focus is more on us than our opponent," Dunlap said. "So as far as dealing with individuals and overdoing the scouting report at this point, our group can't handle all that information just yet. Too much information will slow them down."

Slow is one thing you cannot afford to be against Kentucky. The Wildcats like to run, and all five starters average in double figures, led by sophomore shooting guard Doron Lamb (14.2 ppg). Coach John Calipari's club is young as well, with three freshmen among the starting five. The difference is, Calipari also has three key players with experience from last season's Final Four run in Lamb, 6-foot-9 forward Terrence Jones (13.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and 6-8 swingman Darius Miller (8.5 ppg).

And he has 6-foot-10 freshman Anthony Davis, who is fourth in the nation in blocked shots (4.3 per game). As a team, Kentucky leads the nation in blocks, at 10.3 per contest.

Harkless said he and his St. John's teammates are excited about the opportunity ahead of them.

"We just gotta play harder than them," Harkless said. "One of our coaches said they're kinda like a longer version of us, and they play the same way we play. If we just go out there and play harder than them and play with a little bit more pressure and play more physical, we'll be fine."

The 4-3 Red Storm have already played two Top 25 teams tough this season, coming close to pulling off wins over both Arizona and Texas A&M at Madison Square Garden two weeks ago.

They'll need to play at an even higher level -- maybe a couple levels -- to have a chance Thursday night.

Harkless was asked if St. John's could take any moral victories out of losing a close game to Kentucky. "No, not at all," the freshman said. "We want to win. That's it."

"We have a certain attitude," Dunlap said. "And that is, we want to go down there and see if we can do something special."