NEW YORK –
When the college basketball schedule-makers gave UCLA and St. John’s a marquee CBS Saturday morning game in mid-February, expectations were just a bit higher.
The Bruins entered the season as the Pacific-12 conference favorites, coming off a third-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament and with a frontcourt that was projected to rival the country’s best. The Red Storm, meanwhile, were coming off a wonderful one-season turnaround, the team heading to the tournament for the first time since 2002 with a 21-12 record under first-year coach Steve Lavin.
This was supposed to be Los Angeles and its finest versus New York and its finest in the finest arena in the land, Madison Square Garden. This was UCLA, and its lore, against St. John’s, and its lore. Ben Howland vs. Lavin, current Bruin coach against former Bruin coach, a year after the two met at Pauley Pavilion.
Instead? UCLA is 15-11 and 8-6 in Pac-12 play, barely staying above water in a season that ranks among the league’s worst in recent memory. St. John’s has regressed to 10-16 with Lavin sidelined for much of the year while dealing with his battle with prostate cancer.
But while the game, which tips off at 10 a.m. PST, has lost its luster, don’t tell those involved.
“It’s special for me,” Howland said. “Our players are excited for it, we got to practice in the Garden. So that was a big deal – every great player who has played this game has played in the Garden – that’s special. And then to be playing against St. John’s, you’re talking about the two biggest media markets in the United States of America in Los Angeles and New York. So it’s real nice.”
It would be nicer for the Bruins if they can duplicate their success from last year.
St. John’s stormed into Pauley Pavilion six days after walloping No. 3-ranked Duke at the Garden, and UCLA promptly sent the Red Storm back to New York with barely a drizzle, winning 66-59. Despite 22 turnovers, the Bruins made it to the free throw line 41 times, including 33 times in the second half, while St. John’s was given just seven foul shots. More importantly for Howland, UCLA held the Red Storm to under 40 percent shooting.
But that was then and this is now and the two teams could not be much more different. Just a year later, the Bruins are without Tyler Honeycutt, Malcolm Lee and Reeves Nelson and St. John’s is essentially a completely different team, with eight freshmen and three upperclassmen, only one of whom contributes meaningful minutes.
“They had an all senior-dominated lineup a year ago, and now they have all freshmen,” Howland said. “Of course, with Coach Lavin going through what he’s had to go through, first being diagnosed and then going all through the research to find out what was the best path to take, and then finally probably trying to come back a little too soon because he wanted to be there for his team, they’ve gone through a lot. But Mike Dunlap is a veteran coach, and an outstanding coach, and he’s done a great job for this team. I think they’ve really progressed.”