Steve Lavin of St. John’s Pushing the Right Buttons

teve Lavin is by no means an old coach. At 46, he is still a few years below the average age of Division I basketball head coaches (49.65 according to StatSheet.com). But he was just 32 when he became the head coach at UCLA and 38 when he was fired in 2003. After seven years as a television analyst, Lavin is in his first year at St. John’s.

“I’m probably more calm than I was the first time around at UCLA as a head coach,” Lavin said after St. John’s upset Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. “[In your early 30’s] there’s a little more adrenaline, emotion, and energy, and as you get older you’re a little more even-keeled.”

Lavin said he looks at the world through a “different lens” than he did when he got his first head coaching gig, and you can’t argue with the on-court results. St. John’s (17-9, 9-5 Big East) already has more regular seasons wins this season than it has had since the 2001-02 season. Given its remaining schedule (DePaul, at Villanova, at Seton Hall, South Florida), that record is likely to look even better in a couple of weeks.

Lavin could always get the job done off the court (routinely securing highly-ranked recruiting classes), and as he’s gotten older it appears he’s learned more about in-game strategy. This is not to suggest he has altered his X’s and O’s approach; rather he seems to know what buttons to push to best motivate his players.

At a timeout against Pitt with just under four minutes remaining and his team trailing, Lavin noticed his players were “deflated” and thought they were playing “joyless basketball.”

“I was really encouraging the group for the last four minutes to have fun, that life will never get any better than this moment,” Lavin said. He told his players, “This is Madison Square Garden, you’ve got this place electrified, you’re playing with your best friends, and we’re playing the No. 4 team in the country. This is fun. It’s not about the winning or losing or whether we get a bucket here or not, it’s about enjoying this moment and playing with passion and everything we have to celebrate this gift.”

Dwight Hardy, who scored seven of the Red Storm’s final nine points, including the game-winning layup with 1.2 seconds left, confirmed his coach’s cool demeanor. “He’s the calmest out of everybody. Just sitting there, smiling, saying we’re going to win the game…He’s a wonderful coach because he can relate to us. He acts like a kid.”

It might sound a little sappy, but obviously Lavin’s speeches have been working for the last few weeks. St. John’s beat Duke (ranked fourth at the time and now No. 1) on Jan. 30 to start a run of six wins in its last seven games, including three victories over teams in the top 10.

Steve Lavin addresses media
Lavin explains his reasoning for losing the tie and dress shoes.

The Red Storm could have easily had a letdown effort at Rutgers, its opponent immediately after Duke. St. John’s blew a 10-point lead late in the game, but Lavin drew up a beautiful final play and the Red Storm won by two. At Cincinnati, St. John’s found a way to win (by two) despite not converting a field goal in the final nine minutes. Playing two days later—and for the third time in just six days—St. John’s scored another road victory, this one at Marquette.

Lavin has even switched his attire in his eighth season as head coach. Known for his stylish suits, Lavin lost his tie and traded his dress shoes for sneakers when St. John’s played Duke during the Coaches vs. Cancer awareness weekend. St. John’s is 6-1 since he made the move to the more casual outfit, but Lavin insists the permanent switch has nothing to do with superstition.

“I thought I was doing a more effective job of teaching. It’s so basic, but there isn’t anything more essential than breath and oxygen. I felt my decision-making and clarity and everything was at a higher level when I didn’t have the tie on,” Lavin said with a surprising amount of seriousness. “And the shoes allow me to move a little better on the sideline. If you want to demonstrate something you aren’t going to fall on your fanny in your Florsheims.”

No detail has gone unnoticed for Lavin and his staff, a big reason why St. John’s is ranked for the first time since 2000. With a talented group of players that have clearly bought in to their coach’s philosophy, St. John’s fans can only hope Lavin has a few more motivational ploys left over for the Big East tournament and the Big Dance.

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