Steve Lavin has been on quite a roller-coaster ride at St. John's.
In his first season as head coach, he had the Red Storm rolling. The team won 21 games, the most since 2002-03. There was an NCAA berth and a number of big-time wins, including a blowout of Duke.
Last season, Lavin went through prostate cancer surgery. He made a surprise appearance back on the bench, but that came too quickly. Fatique hampered him, and the decision was made to have Mike Dunlap serve as interim coach for the majority of the season.
Now Lavin is getting ready for year three. Dunlap has moved on to coach the Charlotte Bobcats of the NBA. While St. John's took a big step back last year, the upcoming season has great potential. The recruiting class that Lavin has brought in has the ability to make some noise, and expectations could run wild again.
The latest addition to the group is 6-6 forward Christian Jones from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. He joins a group that includes 6-9 Chris Obekpa, an athletic, shot-blocking talent that will bolster the frontcourt. 6-8 JaKarr Sampson from Brewster Academy in New Hampshire was supposed to go to St. John's last year, but he wasn't eligible and re-opened his recruitment. Lavin's persistence paid off and Sampson could be a major factor on both ends of the floor. He can slash to the basket and finish at the rim.
Also helping up front is 6-9 JUCO standout Orlando Sanchez. He has great versatility and passing skills for a big man. Sanchez is also solid on the glass.
The Red Storm also added to its backcourt. Jamal Branch, a transfer from Texas A&M, could be eligible in mid-December. Swingman Marco Bourgault from France and 6-4 Felix Balamou from Guinea could contribute early on. St. John's is also counting on D'Angelo Harrison, who showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman. He leads a group of returning players that will be better with the past year under their belt.
Lavin has given his program the opportunity to be very competitive. He worked hard despite his illness, building a foundation for the near future. Lavin was relentless in pursuit of this recruiting class and his staff did a super job holding down the fort last season.
Lavin's modified coaching schedule worked in the school's favor over the long term. It allowed him the time to go out and bring in a talented corps. While coaching took a back seat, his health was priority number one. Cardio, rest and a healthy diet gave him more strength, and that allowed him to go recruit.
Now he has a group that should come together quickly as a team. Balamou and Obekpa were high school teammates as were Bourgault and Sanchez. Max Hooper, a transfer from Harvard who'll sit out this season, was a teammate of Sampson's in New Hampshire.
After a rough season, Lavin and company have picked up the pieces and moved forward. The future appears bright for the Red Storm and the coach and his staff deserve a lot of credit for bringing in an outstanding class.