NEW YORK -- When Steve Lavin was hired at St. John's in late March, he inherited a team with a whopping 10 seniors on the roster. He was asked to do the best he could with that veteran group, but more importantly to attract elite recruits in order to build a team that could compete for a Big East championship and return St. John's to national prominence.
But first Lavin had to build another team, to help him get the job done: a coaching staff.
The group didn't come together all at once. In fact, a major addition was made official just a few weeks ago. But it is now complete, and Lavin said he is very pleased with his collection of coaches thus far.
"One of the most pleasant aspects of coming back to coaching has been the ability to assemble a group of people with diverse talents, competencies, experiences, personalities, that complement one another," Lavin said at St. John's media day Nov. 2. "It's a group that loves basketball -- it's a group that has a passion and love for basketball."
The first assistant coach Lavin hired, on April 5, was Tony Chiles, a New York City native who played at All Hallows High School in the Bronx and then at Columbia University. Chiles also worked as an assistant coach at two local mid-majors -- Manhattan and Iona -- before spending the past six seasons as an assistant at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Two weeks later, Rico Hines came aboard. Hines played for Lavin at UCLA from 1997 through 2002. In fact, he was Lavin's first recruit as the Bruins' head coach and served as team captain in his final three seasons there. Hines most recently spent four seasons as an assistant coach with the NBA's Golden State Warriors, working primarily with the team's guards, including young stars Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry.
So, within his first three weeks on the job, Lavin added instant credibility on the local recruiting scene with Chiles, and a guy with an NBA pedigree in Hines -- not a bad start.
On June 1, Lavin made his next addition -- Maurice "Mo" Hicks, as director of basketball operations. Hicks is another well-known figure in the New York City basketball community. He was the head coach at Rice High School in Harlem for the past 16 years, amassing a career record there of 352-86 and winning five New York State Federation championships. He also served as the program director for the highly regarded New York Gauchos AAU program.
Two weeks later, Lavin added the assistant who will be his right-hand man, Mike Dunlap. Dunlap has a reputation for being a strong on-the-court tactician -- he won two Division II national championships as the head coach at Metro State in 2000 and 2002. Dunlap also has some NBA experience, as an assistant with the Denver Nuggets from 2006 through 2008, and was most recently the associate head coach at Oregon last season.
With those four in the fold, Lavin already had amassed what many people regarded as a strong staff.
But there was one final addition still to be made.
On Oct. 15 -- the day preseason practice began -- St. John's made a long-rumored secret official: Legendary former Purdue coach Gene Keady had joined the team. Keady, who coached the Boilermakers from 1980 through 2005, won 512 games, six Big Ten titles and six national coach of the year awards during that span.
Keady also gave Lavin his start in coaching, hiring him as a graduate assistant in 1988. Lavin worked for Keady for three seasons before moving on to become an assistant at UCLA under Jim Harrick. Now things have come full circle, as Lavin has lured Keady out of retirement to serve as executive assistant/adviser.
Keady is not allowed to coach on the court in his role, but he will be a major presence nonetheless behind the scenes, offering his guidance and experience in staff meetings and practice planning. "I'm just here to help," Keady said. "I'll do whatever Steve asks of me."
The current players sound excited about the new set of coaches they're working under.
"They [are] fun," senior forward Justin Brownlee said. "They be killing us in practice, but it's a fun style of play. The coaches, even though they're always hard on us, they still try to find ways to joke with us, have fun with us, things like that. On the court, you can see the hard work paying off."
"It's just more professional," senior swingman D.J. Kennedy said. "We got a lot of professional people who come from professional organizations. ... That's really been key for us, teaching us how to be responsible."
"The first day of practice, I talked to our team about our staff," Lavin said. "Every coach that we brought in, every staff member, are high-achievers. They'd be in that one percentile -- type-A personalities with a lot of drive and a lot of ambition, very accomplished, in some cases highly decorated coaches."
So, this is the team that will try to help Lavin raise St. John's back from the dead.
Can they do it? We'll find out over the next few years. But it appears they're off to a good start -- both with this season's players and the players of the future.
Jakarr Sampson -- the No. 32-ranked high school senior in the country -- verbally committed in September to play for the Red Storm starting next season, and made it official by signing his national letter of intent on Wednesday. "I picked St. John's because I felt very close to the staff," Sampson said after announcing his decision. "If I was going to be away from home I needed to be very comfortable with the coaches."
(More on next year's recruiting class Thursday.)
"The journey's just begun, so there's gonna be tough times. And we're still getting a feel and a sense for working with one another," Lavin said. "But I'd say we're way out in front of what I would have anticipated at this stage, in terms of our implicit sense or feel for one another and the various strengths that everyone brings to the table."
Keady, who would know better than most, perhaps summed it up best.
"I think they have a good chance to be successful here," Keady said, adding one caveat: "If they get the players."
Coming Thursday: Part 3 -- The Players They've Gotten So Far