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Lavin has infused life into St. John's

Steve Lavin will never be confused with John Wooden or Dean Smith, and that's OK. He will never boast Mike Krzyzewski's knowledge, Rick Pitino's motivational skills, John Calipari's fire, Billy Donovan's intensity.

Fine. No problem.

Were my son a hotshot basketball recruit (which he's not) and were he being pursued by the nation's top schools (which, based on his dad's athleticism, he never will be), I would have him open up to page 3 of the Feb. 20, 2011 New York Times sports section, and I would force him to read the piece about the Red Storm's 60-59 victory over No. 4 Pittsburgh on Saturday. Then I'd urge him to attend St. John's.

I really would.

According to the Times' Mark Viera, Lavin used a late-game timeout to neither scream at his players nor instruct his players. No, he used the brief span to remind his minions to appreciate the moment at hand. To seize the day and soak in the atmosphere.

"Life will never get better than this," Lavin said in the huddle. "This is Madison Square Garden. You've got this place electrified, and you're playing with your best friends. This is fun."

That St. John's went on to win is, from my vantage point, irrelevant. What's important here is that Lavin, unlike so many of his peers, seems to actually get it. Anyone who has paid attention to the Red Storm's shocking revival under their first-year head coach has had the privilege of watching the team excel despite ordinary talent, few genuine stars and a brutal Big East schedule.

So why is St. John's 17-9 with the opportunity to get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years? Because, more than anything, the players have fun. So does, for that matter, the coach.

Lavin, who has taken to wearing sneakers and no tie during games, arrived at the Queens, N.Y., campus best known for either his work as an ESPN commentator or for underutilizing his talent while leading UCLA's program from 1996 to 2003. Just how down was St. John's following Norm Roberts' dreary six years as coach? When Lavin was hired, the general Big Apple reaction was a shrug and a yawn. St. John's? Who cares. Any small nuggets of early buzz were generated by Lavin's wife, the actress Mary Ann Jarou, and her multiple Page 6 appearances.

Yet with wins over four top-10 opponents (Pitt, Notre Dame, Duke, Connecticut) and a coach who oozes optimism, the Red Storm are relevant again. To watch Lavin along the sideline is to see a man who genuinely enjoys his place in life. He claps, he high-fives, he encourages, he excites. He knows his senior-stuffed team lacks the talent of a Georgetown or Syracuse, but he doesn't seem to care.

Best of all, Lavin makes his guys want to play hard -- a vastly underrated coaching tool. Throughout my years covering sports, I've seen one college coach after another try to urge on his players via condemnation, tantrums, vulgarity and brutality. I will never forget sitting behind the University of Maryland bench during the Terrapins' 87-79 loss to Arizona in the 1998 West Regional semifinal in Anaheim. As his players struggled to shut down the Wildcats' big three of Mike Bibby, Michael Dickerson and Miles Simon, coach Gary Williams let loose a series of tirades that left everyone sitting within earshot in a stunned -- and awkward -- silence. The language was disgusting. The disapproval was heartbreaking. I'll never forget the face of Laron Profit, at the time Maryland's best player, as he listened to his coach talk to him as if he were a prison inmate. That Maryland lost was hardly a shocker; Williams all but psyched his men out.

Lavin, however, has psyched his men in. Can St. John's go far in the NCAA tournament? Unlikely. The Red Storm are thin in most areas, lacking a true go-to scorer and far from unbeatable (one doesn't lose to Fordham without a few flaws). But the power of positive thinking has the team's fans feeling optimistic for the first time in a decade.

They, too, know to cherish the moment.

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