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Johnnies have room to improve

Steve Lavin is not the prototypical college coach.

Steve Lavin is not the prototypical college coach.

He appears to enjoy the give and take with the media, a task most in his profession treat with the kind of excitement reserved for migraine headaches.

But he is like his colleagues in one very specific instance: He wishes his team had more wins.

“Coaches are greedy. We can go back and say, ‘Oh, I’d like to have this game, this game, this game, this game, this game,’ but there are some games where we surprised people. So at the end, it kind of balances out. But naturally, we’d prefer three or four more wins at this stage,” Lavin told reporters at Taffner Field House yesterday while discussing tonight’s renewal of the St. John’s-UConn rivalry tonight at the Garden.

The last time the two programs met, the Johnnies routed the Huskies, 73-51, in the first round of the 2010 Big East Tournament.

UConn (18-4, 6-4) is ranked 10th in the AP poll and ninth in the ESPN-USA Today poll. They are coming off a 61-59 win over Seton Hall at the Prudential Center on Saturday. St. John’s is 13-9 overall, 5-5 in conference, following a 66-59 loss Saturday afternoon at UCLA.

The loss to the Bruins — Lavin’s first game coaching against his former program — was marked by poor team shooting (.397 from the field), the frontcourt being outscored 57-20 by UCLA having been outrebounded 40-28, and a 41-7 disparity in free throws attempted.

“You see a tough stretch. I think we have a great stretch here, great opportunity. I feel we’re very fortunate to have UConn and Pitt at home. I think we play pretty well at Madison Square Garden,” Justin Burrell said. “It’s an exciting stretch.”

That begins with the Red Storm opening the Garden doors to Kemba Walker.

The junior guard from the Bronx is the best player in the pre-eminent college basketball conference in the nation. Walker averages 23.2 points, 4.2 assists and two steals in 36.6 minutes per game. What makes Walker an especially difficult assignment is that as UConn’s point guard, he is responsible for bringing the ball up court, getting the Huskies into their offensive sets, and has pass, penetrate or shoot options on every possession.

“Sometimes you just can’t slow guys down,” Paris Horne acknowledged. “You can try. Get tough on them; give him tough looks, have a guy in his face, a hand in his face at all times

“(He) has the green light. He can shoot it, drive to the basket. Pretty much, you just have to wear him down.”

Horne, who had seven stitches over his left eye, courtesy of an errant Jamal White elbow in Monday’s practice, speculated that he, Malik Boothe and Dwight Hardy will take turns guarding Walker.

Will the Big Dance call SJU?

Cases can be made for and against St. John’s qualifying for its first NCAA tournament since 2002.

The arguments for St. John’s are that they are ranked 22nd in RPI, have the nation’s second-most difficult strength of schedule and have a winning record against the RPI top 25 (4-3). The Johnnies are 8-8 against the RPI top 150.

However, the Johnnies’ back-to-back losses to St. Bonaventure and Fordham in December may even out the wins over Duke and Georgetown.

Eighteen wins might be enough for St. John's to qualify for the NCAA tournament. The Red Storm have eight regular season games remaining, against UConn, Pitt, DePaul and South Florida at home and road games at Cincinnati, Marquette, Villanova and Seton Hall.

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