Steve Lavin defends St. John's

NEW YORK -- Steve Lavin came to his own defense on Friday after the rockiest week of his three-year tenure as head coach at St. John's.

Seven days after suspending leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison for the rest of the season, and three days after a 26-point loss at Notre Dame that included a near-brawl in the final minutes, Lavin said the program remains headed in the right direction.

"I wish we had 22 or 23 wins at this time of year and we were blitzing through the Big East," Lavin said. "I wish we didn't have the incident at Notre Dame in terms of the fight. I wish my father didn't die. I wish a lot of things -- (that) D'Angelo wasn't suspended. But in every season, if you're in teaching or coaching or parenting, expect the unexpected. And it's how your respond to it and how you move forward.

"And so the overall direction of the program, as I've said all along, I really feel good about. I like where we are, and where we're headed."

It's been a tumultuous three years in New York for Lavin. Things started out well -- Lavin took the senior-laden roster he inherited and defied expectations, guiding them to the school's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002.

But then Lavin missed almost his entire second season recovering from prostate cancer surgery.

He returned to the team at the start of this year, and led the Red Storm to a 14-8 start -- including five straight wins to finish the month of January. St. John's was again a contender for the Big Dance.

But the season has crumbled since. First, Lavin was dealt another personal blow, with his father dying in early February. And now his team has lost six of its past eight games, dropping out of the NCAA tournament picture.

Lavin suspended Harrison for the rest of the season last week for conduct detrimental to the team. And fellow sophomore Sir'Dominic Pointer will also sit out the team's game against No. 15 Marquette on Saturday, after being ejected for throwing punches at Notre Dame's Cameron Biedscheid.

Pointer was not made available to the media Friday, but he did issue this statement through the school:

"I apologize for losing my composure at Notre Dame and for my part in the fight late in the game. I pride myself in my on-court intensity and toughness, but I know I cannot allow it to get to that level and I accept my suspension for the Marquette game. As a leader, I know that it's important to set a good example and I apologize to my team, my school, my family, Notre Dame and our St. John's fans everywhere."

St. John's (16-13, 8-9 Big East), picked to finish 10th in the Big East, will finish right around there, depending on the outcomes of this weekend's games.

The team is very young, composed almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores. But the future of the program remains in limbo.

"When I look at the big picture of where we're going, the culture we're establishing, the standards that we expect from our kids -- we're doing the right things," Lavin said. "And the Notre Dame game was unacceptable, and the fight there was unacceptable, and we don't condone that -- and that's a valuable lesson as well, as we move forward."

It remains to be seen whether Harrison -- the third-leading scorer in the Big East (17.8 ppg) -- will return, or whether he'll transfer or choose to turn pro.

Freshman forward Jakarr Sampson, the team's second-leading scorer (14.9 ppg) and a leading candidate for Big East Rookie of the Year, could choose to jump to the pros after this season, too. After all, last's year Big East Rookie of the Year, St. John's forward Moe Harkless, elected to leave after just one year, and went 15th overall in the NBA draft.

Lavin brought up Harkless, unprompted, on Friday.

"I wish this year, in particular -- it would have been interesting to have Maurice Harkless with this group," Lavin said. "Obviously, it'd be a different outcome in a number of games if we had a lottery-level or close to lottery-level player returning."

He also lamented not having junior-college transfer Orlando Sanchez, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA this year, but will be eligible next season.

"We could have offset the loss of Harkless if Sanchez was eligible this year, because they've very similar players -- matter of fact, Orlando's probably farther along in his development than Harkless because he's older, more mature," Lavin said. "The combination of both losing Harkless early and then not having Orlando's services this year clearly set us back."

Now St. John's heads into its regular-season finale against Marquette without Harrison and Pointer, in addition to Harkless and Sanchez. The Golden Eagles -- picked to finish seventh in the conference -- are playing for a share of the Big East regular-season championship.

"Marquette is an example of a program -- that's where we want to be," Lavin said. "We hope in the next couple of years to get to a point where we can, on an annual basis, be positioned to do special things come March."

"We think it's closer than some may realize," Lavin added. "We're not that far away in my mind of being a very competitive program on an annual basis. We've still got work to do, and we're not naive to the challenge ahead. But I like where we're headed."