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Jeff Eisenberg

Ex-UCLA coach Steve Lavin to St. John's is a peculiar choice

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Of all the coaching hires made so far this spring, Steve Lavin to St. John's is one of the most perplexing.

First, I'm surprised St. John's would hire a California native who hasn't coached in seven years and has no recruiting ties to the East Coast. Second, I'm even more shocked that the reaction in the New York media has been mostly positive so far.

Although Lavin will generate buzz for the program because he's such an incredible people person and he's brilliant with the media, the national perception of him as a coach is more favorable than he probably deserves.

Yes, he took UCLA to the Sweet 16 five out of seven years, but it wasn't sky-high fan expecations that brought his tenure to an end. The Bruins went 10-19 his final season at UCLA in 2002-03 and 14-16 in Ben Howland's first season after replacing him, a dry spell caused as much by Lavin's questionable talent evaluation and inability to instill discipline among his players as anything.

Even in Lavin's best years, when UCLA teams laden with future pros had as much talent as anyone in the nation, NCAA tournament success came only after regular seasons filled with frustration.

In 2000, a UCLA team that featured Jason Kapono, Dan Gadzuric, Earl Watson, Matt Barnes and Jerome Moiso somehow started 4-8 in Pac-10 play before rallying to make the NCAA tournament with six straight wins to close the regular season. In 2002, a similarly talented Bruins team amazingly finished sixth in an admittedly strong Pac-10 that season, saving Lavin's job again with an upset of top-seeded Cincinnati in the second round of the tournament.

Former UCLA star Baron Davis didn't help Lavin's reputation a few years ago when he returned to Pauley Pavilion for a practice with the Golden State Warriors. As he spoke to reporters about the 11 national title banners hanging from the rafters, he took a not-so-subtle jab at Lavin, saying, "We should have a banner up there: the only team to make the tournament without a coach."

One of the biggest complaints about Lavin at UCLA was that he didn't hire an experienced X's & O's man as lead assistant when he took over for Jim Harrick in 1997 at age 33. An X's & O's guy will be important for him at St. John's, but it's most important that he hires a staff that is intimately familiar with recruiting the New York region and the East Coast.

From their misguided overtures to Billy Donovan, Paul Hewitt and Seth Greenberg, it's clear the Johnnies wanted to hire a big name to turn their struggling program around, but does Lavin still qualify? Sixteen- and 17-year-old kids might know Lavin as an ESPN analyst, but do any of them remember his last Sweet 16 appearance when they were in grade school?

If Lavin proves he's learned from some of his previous mistakes at UCLA and hires a hard-working staff familiar with the East Coast, perhaps there's a chance he can lead St. John's back to relevancy. If not, expect this to be a hire that's both expensive and short-lived.

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