The Big Payback

I wonder how Steve Lavin feels right now. He’s a good fellow, an amiable chap, wouldn’t throw many coaches or situations under a bus. He respects his elders and where he came from. He has focused his energies since his ouster from the University of California, Los Angeles. And in his new coaching job, he’s corrected some weaknesses in his re-transition to coaching.

Tomorrow, we get to see where this all leads. Lavin gets to walk into his old workplace – Pauley Pavilion – and hopefully, put a real cathartic Hollywood whipping on them. This game should come with swelling violins and horns, bombast, flags, and a fist pump at the end. If there’s any game he should pull out all of his tricks to win, it’s this one.

The fans of the UCLA program program gave him seven years of hell. Many of the reporters write of him as if they’re trying to describe the devil to people who just can’t see evil. There is an arrogance, an extreme arrogance involved in the hatred of Steve Lavin. After seven years, people can’t just let it go? That’s not fair.

They call him “Coach Hair Product.” There’s a dedicated post on how much they hate Steve Lavin – after 7 years. (The people on the Scout message board are a little kinder.) They call him the Blagojevich of college hoops, they call him the Lizard of Westwood, and more.

I’d go so far as to say that the Bruins deserve to be taken over the Red Storm’s proverbial knee and spanked with a paddle. This is NOT just a game. This is retribution, and New York stands behind our newly transplanted Cali coach Steve Lavin. It’s gonna be wild tomorrow, that’s for sure. Will Lavin be too keyed up? Can the players deliver? The energy in Pauley Pavilion will be crazy – despite the 10AM Pacific time start. After years of character insults, Steve Lavin gets to face his accusers and show just how good he can be. Can the Red Storm win Lavin’s Southern California return?

UCLA (15-7, 7-3)

But this game will be played with scholarship athletes, not the coaches and the fans’ vitriol, so let’s look at the Bruins.

In a tie for second place in the Pac-10, the young UCLA Bruins are a work in progress. Over the course of the season, they have improved their interior defense and are now a tough-minded team, closer to the kinds of squads Ben Howland used to have at Pittsburgh. They run a little bit but are often more deliberate in their offense, especially with their big men Reeves Nelson and Joshua Smith on the floor.

Those two comprise a pretty good front line. Freshman Joshua Smith has worked himself into game shape, though still listed at over 300 pounds; he is, obviously, hard to move, but has some issues with conditioning. Otherwise, he has a nice touch, draws fouls and is an excellent offensive rebounder. Reeves Nelson is much like Justin Burrell’s best days – a lot of energy, a dogged rebounder on both ends, a dunking and foul-drawing machine. Supposedly his concentration wanes, but I haven’t seen much of that in the games I’ve seen. They are backed up by Brendan Lane, who could use more girth in the post, and Anthony Stover, who starts but only plays a few minutes per game.

And sometimes the Bruins play a small lineup with Tyler Honeycutt at one of the forward positions. Honeycutt is probably the most talented basketball player on the Bruins. Not the best athlete, though he’s up there; guard Malcolm Lee might be a better overall athlete. Honeycutt is a bit like Dwayne Polee – long, multi-talented, and in need of some protein shakes. Honeycutt can hit from outside, can drive to the basket, and is an excellent shot-blocker on the ball. He plays the most minutes of anyone on the roster.

At guard, the Bruins are still putting things together. Junior College point guard Lazeric “Zeke” Jones handles the point guard position capably, throwing in some three-pointers for good measure. Not the greatest athlete, but good enough to hang in the Pac 10. Malcolm Lee is the Bruins’ best defender, and he is long and impressive; he also converts his shots inside the arc. They are backed up by once-touted recruit Jerime Anderson – a solid athlete with a decent jump shot – and freshman Tyler Lamb who gets spot minutes.

Keys to the Game

Focus. The aura around the game will be zoo-like. The St. John’s players have to gather the best of their emotions and channel them to win for coach. The energy from last week’s Duke game would be helpful; but Ben Howland’s teams, like Jamie Dixon’s teams, require a high level of precision and cohesion to defeat. This is a big game, and St. John’s has played well in the bigger games they have had against teams that should be comparable. (It’s the littler ones that have been problematic.) The simple things need to be taken care of – no careless ballhandling. Protect the rim against the inconsistent-shooting Bruins. Play at a high level early in the game.

Win the Battle Up Front. That will be the key to the game. If Josh Smith and Reeves Nelson get Brownlee, Burrell, and Evans into foul trouble, it will be a long game. This is a matchup for Sean Evans to get major minutes in. Nelson and Smith are active rebounders as well, and the Johnnies have to minimize their damage.

Like a Mudslide. The Bruin team isn’t the best at ball protection – Tyler Honeycutt, in particular, has had some ballhandling struggles – and the Red Storm have to force them into mistakes, while minimizing their own.

Free Throws. St. John’s has to get to the line, since they are not good at converting shots from the field. And at the line… they should hit those shots. They’re free, after all.

Hardy. Dwight Hardy has to have a good game for the Red Storm to win – or at least a positive impact, by not turning the ball over, getting to the line, or hitting some clutch shots.

Prediction. Going bold. St. John’s wins, 72-66. UCLA fans get REALLY upset.

Pico Dulce


Transplanted from New York, the now-Midwestern Peter a/k/a Pico writes for SB Nation's St. John's site, Rumble in the Garden. Pico is also on Twitter, @ECoastBias.

  • Robwash

    I’m a Bruin fan, but I enjoyed the article. Lavin was always a class guy and an excellent recruiter. As Ben Howland can tell you, being coach at UCLA is a tough job. Howland has gotten to three final fours and has lost a TON of top-notch talent early to the NBA. But he still gets ripped.

    Should be a good game, although the last time the Bruins had to play this early they didn’t wake up until the second half. The time difference could work in St. Johns favor.

    I like UCLA, 58-52.