Lavin spies NCAA berth for Storm

NEW YORK -- Steve Lavin sees nine seniors and nearly as many close losses and figures the St. John's team he inherits isn't too far from returning to the NCAA tournament.

"When I hear him say that, I don't think it's dreaming," said the school's president, the Rev. Donald J. Harrington. "I think it's quite possible and I would even say probable that in a year or two that's where we'll be."

It would be the first time since 2002 for a program that balances between the high expectations of history and the low points of recent years. Into that steps Lavin, who was formally introduced at an on-campus news conference Wednesday after seven years out of coaching. Lavin has been an ESPN analyst since UCLA fired him in 2003.

The Red Storm return all five starters and 94 percent of their scoring from a squad that went 17-16 and lost in the first round of the NIT. They were in the game in the final minutes on the road against Georgetown and Pittsburgh; led at halftime against West Virginia, Villanova and Louisville; twice lost to Marquette by two points.

"If those five or six games are won, then they're in the NCAA tournament and I'm not talking to you today," Lavin said

Instead, he's talking to one of his mentors, former Purdue coach Gene Keady, about joining him on the St. John's staff in an advisory role. Keady, who retired in 2005, gave Lavin his first coaching job in 1988.

"He was all ears," Lavin said, noting that Keady is a "huge" New York Yankees fan.

Lavin planned to sit with Keady in the stands at Saturday's NCAA semifinal game in Indianapolis.

"He'd be such an asset to have around our staff, around our kids, to have him on the bench," Lavin said.

Lavin wasn't ready to name names as far as the rest of his staff, saying he wanted to follow the protocol of contacting the current employers of the coaches on his list.

Lavin went 145-78 in seven seasons at UCLA, reaching the NCAA tournament's round of 16 five times. The Bruins made the final eight in 1997, his first season. He was fired after going 10-19, his only losing record and the school's first in 55 years.

Lavin fell into the job when Jim Harrick was fired a week before the season began in November 1996. With assistants Mark Gottfried and Lorenzo Romar having already taken head coaching jobs, the unproven Lavin was promoted.

His teams at UCLA beat four No. 1-ranked opponents, but in his final season, the Bruins had a then-record 10 losses at Pauley Pavilion and the average attendance of 8,348 in the 12,819-seat arena was the lowest since 1993.

St. John's fired Norm Roberts after six seasons in which he went 81-101. Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt rejected an offer from the school last week. Al Skinner, who was fired by Boston College on Tuesday, was also interviewed.

Lavin recalled that whenever fans would ask if he would return to coaching, one of the jobs he'd always mention as among the few that would lure him away from his TV gig was St. John's. But he'd also add that he probably would never be considered for the position because he's not a New York guy.

Lavin drew plenty of laughs at the Catholic school when he joked of his seemingly unlikely hire, "Maybe I'm the Polish pope."

Lavin, who plans to hire assistants with East Coast ties, noted that he recruited nationally at UCLA.

"It's not as though I'm going to be Mr. Magoo wandering around gyms in New York not knowing anybody," he said.

As he'd told all those fans, an offer from St. John's was what it took to get him back into coaching after he turned down NC State in 2006.

"I was well aware when I made that decision that it might be the last opportunity to coach at this level," he said. "That's how much I was enjoying broadcasting."