Steve Lavin eager to return

NEW YORK -- Steve Lavin is cancer-free and ready to resume his St. John's restoration project.

Three weeks before official practices begin, Lavin looked healthy and sounded full of vigor on Saturday, speaking with reporters at the school's second annual Dribble For The Cure event -- which raises money for pediatric cancer research.

"I can tell that I'm closer to being back to a level of health that I was at prior to the treatment," Lavin said. "Naturally, I still have to be vigilant on the health front -- as we all do when we get older, or coming off something like a battle with cancer. But I clearly feel in a better place in terms of my stamina, my strength, my conditioning."

Lavin, 48, missed almost all of last season while recuperating from prostate cancer. He underwent surgery last October, returned to coach four games in November but then stepped away again, feeling physically that he had come back too soon.

"Naturally, going through the experience of being diagnosed with cancer -- having surgery, recovering, having a setback and now full recuperation -- makes you aware of how fragile and precious life is," Lavin said. "And it does put basketball in its proper light. While it's important and it's a passion of mine to coach and teach and compete, after this past year, you're aware that there are more important things."

However, Lavin seems fully committed to guiding the Red Storm though the 2012-13 season and beyond.

"I take very seriously what I do as the basketball coach at St. John's," Lavin said, "and the opportunity I've been given to work with this group of players in such a historical program."

St. John's is coming off one of the more unique seasons in recent memory. Due to an abnormally large class of graduating seniors the year before, the ineligibility of three incoming recruits and a couple of defections along the way, the Red Storm played with practically no bench and little margin for error. They finished the season with just six scholarship players -- five freshmen, and a junior college transfer.

Despite these challenging circumstances, the young squad managed to post a 13-19 record, including a 6-12 mark in Big East play.

Assistant coach Mike Dunlap, who was in charge in Lavin's absence, is now the head coach of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats. And star forward Maurice Harkless, the Big East Rookie of the Year, chose to leave school early for the NBA as well. But St. John's has added seven new players to its roster for this season, including ESPN Top 100 recruits JaKarr Sampson, Chris Obekpa and Jamal Branch, a transfer from Texas A&M.

And they have their head coach back, too.

"He brings energy, he always brings energy," said sophomore guard D'Angelo Harrison, the team's leading scorer a season ago (16.8 ppg). "Just having him around, it just makes everybody almost have another chip on their shoulder. We already have one, but when he comes around, it's just like, 'Aw man, he's back, too.' So we're ready to go."

"Totally different," said fellow sophomore guard Phil Greene, of having Lavin back. "Now he's here all the time. It just makes you feel good that you have your coach back."

Lavin took over at St. John's in the spring of 2010 and did a remarkable job off the bat, leading a group he inherited to the school's first NCAA tournament since 2002.

Year two certainly didn't go as planned, but Lavin sounds confident about the state of the program heading into his third season.

"We're now closer to what I envisioned when I took the job over in 2010," Lavin said. "We're probably a year ahead of schedule in terms of our personnel, but I also temper that statement with the fact that it's the youngest team I've ever coached. Eleven freshmen and sophomores."

Fortunately for Lavin, four of those sophomores -- Harrison, Greene and swingmen Amir Garrett and Sir'Dominic Pointer -- all received a baptism by fire as freshmen, each averaging at least 27 minutes per game.

"I'm loving it," said Garrett, looking ahead to the new season. "Coach Lav's back. We're ready to go."