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Thursday / December 9.
  • UCLA’s Howland, St. John’s Lavin Facing Similar Struggles

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    NEW YORK — UCLA coach Ben Howland and St. John’s coach Steve Lavin share a lot in common.

    Both men followed legendary coach John Wooden in leading the Bruins.

    Both currently coach tradition-rich programs that are struggling and have restless fan bases.

    Both face very real questions about their immediate futures.

    And both need impact recruiting classes to help their causes going forward.

    “All former UCLA coaches form a relationship because the hot-seat there is tough, so we appreciate the challenges of the job,” Lavin, recovering from prostate cancer surgery, said after watching St. John’s beat UCLA, 66-63, from a suite at Madison Square Garden.

    The game marked yet another brilliant performance from St. John’s freshmen group of D’Angelo Harrison (22 points, 8 rebounds), Moe Harkless (10 points, 12 rebounds), Sir’Dominic Pointer (13 points) and Phil Greene (11 points). Harrison and Harkless both remain legitimate Big East Rookie of the Year candidates.

    It was yet another disturbing defeat for UCLA (15-12, 8-7), which has no shot of making the NCAA Tournament unless it wins the Pac-12 Tournament.

    “It’s been disappointing that we haven’t performed a little better,” said Howland, who wore white sneakers to support Lavin and cancer research. “But I’m pleased with some of the improvement of some of our players.”

    The drumbeat to fire Howland has been getting louder and louder in Westwood, but that seems unlikely given that he has a stellar recruiting class coming in headlined by St. Anthony point guard Kyle Anderson, and remains alive for both Shabazz Muhammad and Tony Parker in the last signing period.

    “You look at the team this year and we’re certainly not where we want to be,” UCLA AD Dan Guerrero told SNY.tv. “We’re a work in progress, there’s no question about that. Other than the two senior guards [Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones], we’re still a very young team and we play like a young team in a lot of respects.”

    It has been a rough year off the court at UCLA, too.

    Junior forward Reeves Nelson was dismissed in December for conduct unbecoming to the team. After a brief stint in Lithuania, he departed last month.

    “It’s been a tough year also for Ben as it relates to the guys on the team, having to make the decision to have Reeves leave certainly cost the team in some respects in how they could develop,” Guerrero said.

    The Bruins are also playing away from home at the LA Sports Arena while Pauley Pavilion is being renovated.

    “Even though we played 18 home games at the Sports Arena, every one of them was a road game,” Guerrero said.

    Howland openly admitted after the St. John’s loss that his team could’ve used Anderson, whom St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley has called a “modern-day Magic Johnson.”

    “You can see that we need Kyle and so his opportunity to come in and be an impact player right away is definitely sitting there for him,” Howland said.

    Of course, landing the 6-6 Muhammad and/or the 6-9 Parker wouldn’t hurt, either.

    The Bruins are in the mix for both but face stiff competition.

    Kentucky, Duke, Arizona, UNLV and Kansas are also in the mix for Muhammad, and Duke and Ohio State are among the schools after Parker.

    “I’m going to be in their ear about it,” Anderson told SNY.tv recently. “But it’s up to them. I’m going to put it out there that we really need them.”

    So does Howland.

    If he gets one or both of those guys to pair with Anderson and incoming wing Jordan Adams, things could turn around next year.

    If not, his three straight Final Fours from 2006-8 may not help him survive the fans’ wrath.

    “We’re top 10 in probably six or seven sports right now, but obviously this is the big one in so many respects because it’s UCLA,” Guerrero said.

    UCLA ranks eighth all-time in Division 1 victories with 1,709, while St. John’s is seventh with 1,725.

    This year Lavin is recovering from prostate cancer and has basically spent the campaign recruiting while Mike Dunlap runs the team.

    He has faced some heat from fans and critics who wonder why he is healthy enough to travel cross-country to recruit yet can’t coach the team itself.

    “Right now, I’m putting a lot of energy into recruiting and that’s the most effective way for me to lead the program forward and have value,” Lavin said Saturday. “We’re burning the fuel on the road and determined to sign another stellar class here in 2012.”

    St. John’s is down to seven scholarship players and potentially could lose players to the NBA Draft.

    Lavin has recently missed out on forwards Ricardo Gathers (Baylor) and Winston Shepard (San Diego State) and hopes to land 6-8 JaKarr Sampson, 6-9 Chris Obekpa and 6-3 wing Felix Balamou, who was at the Garden on an official visit.

    “We knew this was going to be a three-year process and we’re establishing a blueprint to build this program,” Lavin said. “We surprised people and were ahead of schedule last year by making the [NCAA] Tournament, but clearly you can see the upside of this young team and they’re blossoming right before our eyes.”

    He added that he planned to return to the sidelines for the 2012-13 season.

    “We’re ‘on track to be back next year,” Lavin said.

    For both Howland and Lavin, that is a motto they hope comes to fruition.

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.