On the long plane ride from Los Angeles to New York, UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland was preparing for his team's game Saturday against St. John's at Madison Square Garden so he watched game film from the Bruins' 66-59 victory over the Red Storm from last season.
He might have been better off taking a nap.
St. John's bears little resemblance to the team UCLA faced a year ago at Pauley Pavilion, with no players on the current roster having played in that game and coach Steve Lavin taking a limited role as he recovers from prostate cancer.
The Red Storm, because of player graduations and defections, will run out a starting lineup of five freshman for the 10 a.m. PT tipoff and use a junior college transfer as their only significant bench player. Last year's Red Storm squad finished 21-12 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament with a roster that included 10 seniors, but the lone returning player from that team -- guard Malik Stith -- quit the team last week for personal reasons.
The Red Storm (10-16, 4-10 Big East) have lost nine of their last 11 games, including four in a row, but Howland says he isn't taking the team lightly.
"They are really playing hard," Howland said. "Some of their freshmen have been incredible. These kids are very talented. They are young, but they are very talented."
Leading the way for St. John's are D'Angelo Harrison, a 6-foot-3 guard, and Moe Harkless, a 6-8 forward. Harrison is averaging 16.7 points to lead all Big East freshmen and Harkless is averaging 15.9 points and 8.5 rebounds -- second among Big East freshmen in scoring and first in rebounding.
Harkless is the tallest player on the team, so the smaller, quicker Red Storm will present a matchup problem for the Bruins, who have four regulars at 6-10.
"They are a very dangerous, long, athletic team," Howland said. "They’re pressing back to their zone. Their zone is very aggressive with a lot of ball pressure. It's a hard matchup for us because they play small."
Last year when these teams met, it was a marquee matchup between two teams with rich basketball histories who were headed to the NCAA tournament. It also carried the juicy story line of Lavin returning to UCLA for the first time since Howland replaced him as coach in 2003.
But neither team appears headed for the NCAA tournament this season and Lavin is not on the St. John's sidelines after undergoing cancer treatments last year. He's coached four games for St. John's, but none since November as he has handed the reigns to assistant Mike Dunlap while he tries to recover.
In Lavin's honor, UCLA coaches will wear sneakers for the game. College coaches began wearing sneakers for a weekend about a decade ago to help bring awareness to cancer. The annual Coaches vs. Cancer weekend has already passed, but Howland said his staff would like to honor what Lavin has gone through. St. John's coaches wear sneakers every game.
"I thought it was appropriate that we all wear our basketball shoes tomorrow in honor of Steve and him being a cancer survivor and bring more awareness to cancer," Howland said. "Cancer affects all of us. Everybody has someone that they love that’s been affected by it."
This nationally-televised game between teams from the two biggest media markets in the country is a good way to draw attention, even if it does seem like strange timing for a cross-country trip for one game. Howland said the benefits of exposure are worth the inconvenience.
"It’s good for the program," Howland said. "To have it on CBS is always special. I think our players were really excited. We got to practice in the Garden today and that’s a big deal. Every great player who has played this game has played in the Garden."
Of course the great player du jour is Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks, who has made national headlines with his recent play. The players were able to go into the Knicks locker room and, of course, all of them are keenly aware of the Lin-sanity craze.
"Our whole team is very aware of Jeremy Lin and they’re all following it and excited about what he has brought to the Knicks and to the NBA," Howland said. "It’s just a great story.
Note: Anthony Stover (ankle) and Tyler Lamb (hamstring) both practiced Friday and are expected to be available for the game. Stover sat out the last two games while Lamb played through his injury Wednesday against USC.