Lavin shakes up lineup in Johnnies' win

NEW YORK -- When a player has led his team in scoring for the past three games, and been named the Most Outstanding Player of a tournament, the last thing you expect to see is that player getting benched.

Yet that's exactly what happened Wednesday night at Carnesecca Arena -- St. John's forward Justin Brownlee was sitting on the sideline as the Red Storm prepared for tip-off against Wagner.

In fact, Brownlee was one of three starters St. John's coach Steve Lavin decided to reassign to the second unit for the Red Storm's homecoming game after their Great Alaska Shootout win on Thanksgiving weekend. D.J. Kennedy -- the team's leading scorer last season -- and Dwayne Polee were also in folding chairs at first tip.

Still, the starting lineup had little effect on the final outcome, as Kennedy (20 points) and Brownlee (17) led St. John's to a victory over heavy-underdog Wagner, 69-61.

Only after the game did Lavin offer an explanation for the curious lineup changes.

"What we did here tonight was kind of a combination. It was different with each change in the starting lineup," Lavin said. "In some cases it was just trying to send a message, put a little fire under the fanny, in terms of attitudes and approach. In another case it was a very minor but still important team policy in terms of class attendance."

Lavin declined to confirm which starter was benched for which reason. "I'd rather not," Lavin said. "If I was coaching a pro team I'd do it in a heartbeat, but you guys can probably mix and match."

It was indeed easy to make educated guesses -- especially after listening to comments from Kennedy and Brownlee, who were sitting on either side of Lavin in the postgame news conference.

Kennedy -- who averaged 15. 1 points per game last season and is St. John's best player -- has looked sluggish in several games this season. He was particularly lethargic in the Red Storm's last game -- a 67-58 win over Arizona State in the Great Alaska Shootout final -- scoring just two points and taking only three shots in 23 minutes.

"I take games like that real personal," Kennedy said. "I felt like last game, my attitude, body language were horrible for the team and everybody. So I definitely feel like coach made the right decision, and it kinda helped me out for this game."

Wednesday night, Kennedy was much more aggressive, taking 12 shots and earning eight free throws en route to scoring 20 points.

"It kept me real humble," Kennedy said of not starting.

Brownlee, on the other hand, had a wonderful three games in Alaska -- leading the Red Storm in scoring in all three games and shooting 66.7 percent from the field, earning the MOP trophy in the process. It appears Brownlee was the one who committed the academic infraction.

"I learned a lesson," Brownlee said. "Because on and off the court, you gotta handle your business. And if you don't take care of your business, you get punished for it. So in the future I'm looking forward to just handling my business, doing what I gotta do."

Brownlee posted another excellent performance on the court Wednesday night, with 17 points on 7-for-12 shooting from the floor.

Polee -- the highly-rated freshman who led the team in scoring in the very first game of the season against St. Mary's with 16 points -- hasn't been nearly as effective since the season opener, and has seen his playing time diminish. Lavin also mentioned that one of the lineup switches was "related to kind of a poor stretch of practices" -- that may have been Polee's primary offense.

Polee scored four points in only eight minutes of action against Wagner, and was not available after the game.

The three new starters Wednesday were seniors Justin Burrell and Paris Horne and sophomore Malik Stith. All three had made nice contributions off the bench this season, although none of the three had a particularly good game against Wagner.

Lavin also indicated the starting lineup changes were likely just a one-game deal -- although don't be shocked if Polee continues to come off the bench.

Lavin's bigger concern should be his team's offense, which struggled shooting the basketball Wednesday. The Red Storm finished just 22-for-61 from the field (36.1 percent), while shooting 3-for-17 from 3-point land (17.6 percent) and 22-for-36 from the foul line (61.1 percent).

That allowed Wagner to hang around despite committing 21 turnovers on the night, eventually cutting a 16-point, early second-half lead to just four, 62-58, with 4:33 to play.

"There's stretches where we don't have rhythm -- offense is rhythm," Lavin said. "We struggle at times, whether it's pushing the ball initially and then in the half-court becoming stagnant. At other times I feel we lose confidence -- where they're thinking, and they get a little bit stymied or paralyzed offensively and appear almost inhibited. And hesitation on offense will kill you."

The good news for Lavin and St. John is, it didn't kill them Wednesday night -- nor did the lineup changes. And Lavin was pleased with how his punished players responded.

"There's two ways they can react," Lavin said. "One is to pout, and put themselves in further jeopardy. The other is to come back with the right mindset, and to put the past behind you and play as well as you can in the present. That showed some maturity, in terms of the way the players that didn't start tonight handled it."

Kieran Darcy is a staff writer for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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