Fordham


angelo-harrison-st-johnIs D’Angelo Harrison (above) yelling at the barber who gave him that haircut?

With coach out for what was for all intents and purposes the entire season last year, his honeymoon period in Jamaica was effectively extended, so we thought it bad form to be heavily critical, when considering some of the errors the program made in 2011. While Lavin is perhaps already the best recruiter in team history, we are not able to say he is infallible, or that the mistakes made last year were not bad ones.  Lavin led the charge in a recruiting class in which his 4 best recruits had serious eligibility questions.  Nurideen Lindsey, the team’s shoot first point guard, had been rumored ineligible since June of 2011 but somehow got his course work done in time for last season.  But then Lindsey suffered an early slump and then essentially quit on the team, over some perceived dispute with interim coach Mike Dunlap, now the head coach of the NBA’s Bobcats.  It was a development that not only disappointed hardcore fans who bought into the Lindsey hysteria, but also one that begged the question, how exactly does a kid with so little character get recruited at all, let alone recruited for a leadership role?  Lindsey tried to downplay any controversy or that he was not a headcase, citing homesickness. So we guess Lindsey maybe was homesick for Phily in Queens but not in Oklahoma where he played his JC ball.

While Lindsey’s departure was not crippling to the program, that only happened to be the case because St. John’s had so few players on scholarship to begin with, and those mistakes in recruiting had already sounded the death knell for last season’s squad.  Nice that Lavin was able to walk away from a bad kid so easily, but that seems to be the only advantage really when your supremely touted recruiting class comes in undermanned and with so many eligibility questions that your roster is annihilated, and you can’t play full court basketball.

Of course the most disappointing recruiting loss the Johnnies suffered last year was that of perhaps the national class’s top big, Norvel Pelle.  Having a legitimate big man at the college level is a true luxury, even at class programs, and generally distinguishes elite programs.  Anyone who saw St. John’s struggle to score 20 points in the 1st half versus Kentucky should understand that concept very well.  Kentucky seemed to rack up more blocks than points in that 1st half of domination against us. But Pelle is another player dubious of character and intelligence who underscores the tenuous business of relying on the word of players, especially out of town players, when putting these classes together.

The 2 elite wing prospects that Lavin signed would both get to play for St. John’s, though getting them didn’t prove easy.  Mo Harkless, the team’s linchpin, brought tremendous honor to Lavin’s program when he was selected by Philadelphia in the NBA’s 1st round lottery, prior to being sent to Orlando in the Andrew Bynum-Dwight Howard deal.  But Harkless also had eligibility questions raised by the fact that at CTK, his Director of Basketball Operations was Mo Hicks, who now works on Lavin’s staff.  While Hicks was obviously brought in because of his sway with City kids, he isn’t allowed to recruit kids he coached in HS.  Thankfully the NCAA took mercy on Harkless, who had one of the best seasons of any freshman in team history.  Without him, St. John’s probably doesn’t win 10 games.

Yet, had he been ruled ineligible, then we may have seen MH suit up with this year’s talented but incomplete group of 2s and 3s.  If Harkless was to ride it out and stay on board, a kid like that with a man’s build, would have given the entire roster room to breath, while giving opponent 3s and 4s nightmares.  While we hate to play the what if he stayed game, and while we don’t like begrudging guys who have an opportunity to go to the next level, we feel like the absence of Harkless might keep the Johnnies out of the dance, especially after watching this young squad play a lot of up and down basketball already this year.  Struggling at home against NJIT is bad enough, but following such a squeaker with a flat performance against USF in Lavin’s return home to the Bay Area, after a couple days of rest and practice, even against a veteran team, is disappointing.

And so we have to mix in our first meaningful criticisms of Lavin’s program, which is a mixed bag of complaints about scheduling and recruiting philosophies.  In Lavin’s 1st year, St. John’s opened out west, also played UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, and now has trekked out to Frisco this year, all losses.

We get that a nice RPI comes from playing quality opponents out of conference and away from home, but when do we start winning some of these games?  We love that Lavin is here and we wouldn’t trade him for a second, but does having him mean a legacy of west coast losses?  Since Lavin is a Cali guy some might have the odd hope that he knows how to prepare teams to play on the west coast, but prior to last Tuesday’s game in Frisco, we all but knew that the team was headed for a loss.  When we thought about the halftime ceremony and how Lavin’s dad, Cap, was there at the game, we thought those things might have given St. John’s some extra oomph.  But it was a fantasy that was devastated early enough, as St. John’s was virtually down from the opening tip, causing us to ask ourselves how we could momentarily buy that Lavin west coast edge propaganda.

For stretches Tuesday night, St. John’s trailed very badly, which was especially disappointing when St. John’s cut the lead to 38-35 at the half, a run spear headed by a guy who looks spear headed with that odd fade, dynamic two D’Angelo Harrison, and then let SF get on a 14-2 run to start the second half and extend the lead to 52-37.  But we aren’t here to complain about the eventual loss, perse.  SF’s point guard Cody Doolin (14 Assists), orchestrating his team’s offense like a Steve Nash, seemed to have the ball on a string the whole night.  He is by far the best point guard we’ve seen this year.  That kid is a heady player who had his way with St. John’s young backcourt, except when St. John’s cut that 52-37 lead to 59-54 mid way through the 2nd half, when Lavin made a wise adjustment, putting Sir’Dominick Pointer on Doolin.  Pointer, widely heralded as the team’s best perimeter defender–another nappy headed kid–who had not really distinguished himself as a stopper to us, though Tuesday we saw that potential, as he played Doolin physically and step for step in the full court, until inevitable foul trouble necessitated a different matchup.  Pointer had at one point stolen an inbounds pass right under the SF basket, and was poised for a layup that would’ve cut the lead to 3 but he had stepped on the baseline, negating the play.  Pointer also displayed a very rough, east coast brand of defense that makes him perfect for the Big East.  You could tell that Doolin was uncomfortable with that matchup, as Pointer literally manhandled the upper classmen, reminiscent of star alum Ron Artest…um, we mean Metta World Peace, of course.

When we see the flashes that we did from Pointer, from the very promising young big Obepka, who may more than make up for not having Pelle, and from leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison, we can tell the team has a winning nucleus.  St. John’s got a reasonable contribution last night from Ohio native Jakarr Sampson, and though the highly touted freshman has shown flashes from the wing and around the rim, he’s still finding his way as he transitions to the college game.  Sampson was also part of the banner 2011 class who never made it on to the court last year due to eligibility issues, but at least he kept his word to Lavin and recommitted to SJU. He also must work on finding a better ‘do.  Is he the player he was hyped to be?  He’s had both fluid moments and struggles so far, but he does not seem to be in the same class of player as Harkless, even when rolling.

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St. John’s seems to have a lot of talent by committee.  At different points in the game we saw good things from Sampson, Amir Garrett (who also plays baseball and is a strong prospect for the Cincinnati Reds, as well as another bad hair member of the Storm) Pointer, Obepka, and D’Angelo Harrison, but they all seemed to run invisible for stretches as well, which worries us more from Garrett and Harrison, who are essentially veterans on this club.  We were glad to see Pointer flash his defensive potential, and really play to the bulldog persona we’ve heard so much about, but Pointer is not a guy who we feel teams have to worry about scoring, and is, at least right now, a very incomplete player.  The usually reliable Phil Greene who can be counted on to score and play a lot of smart minutes did neither Tuesday, and was largely invisible as well.  We aren’t picking on Greene so much as acknowledging that he doesn’t match up well with legitimate point guards.  The tone of the broadcast seemed to reflect as much, with the announcers, joined by Chris Mullin, echoing the notion that the difference between the teams was that USF has a Doolin and St John’s does not.  Hopefully Jamal Branch will balance that equation as soon as he is eligible, and Orlando Sanchez, a supposed beast on the interior, will allow St. John’s to have more success in the paint.

While we are optimistic about the program, we can’t go crazy about guys who aren’t eligible, as last year has reminded us.  It is also unwise to put too much stock in guys who haven’t played much college basketball.  While Branch is a transfer, and he may have represented the best point guard option available at his late signing date, we feel that St. John’s is having trouble making commitments stick, especially at the one, and that there were several freshmen point guards who stayed relatively local that are better players than Branch.

Sanchez could be this year’s God’s Gift, a guy with a lot of hype to live up to who probably won’t.  Notice how Lavin has GG moored to the bench this year when last year he was practically the toast of the town.  Sanchez could also be a guy who doesn’t get cleared to play.

We hate to come down hard on Lavin, who we would not trade for a second.  Judging St. John’s coaches calls for perspective.  Lavin is quite possibly the best coach and recruiter that we’ve ever had.  Maybe Lavin lost touch a little bit with recruiting matters last year, and if so, there are enough quality new players to suggest that he regained that touch.  And then we consider that there are ongoing eligibility questions surrounding the current squad as well.  While the program is light years better than during the Norm Roberts and Mike Jarvis eras, we feel that Lavin is plagued by stability issues, which is in no way meant as a veiled criticism of Lavin’s health problems.  Going back to Lavin’s first ever recruit, talented wing Dwayne Polee, who has since transferred as well, Lavin seems to bring in kids who have no strong ties to the community at St. John’s.  Polee may not add up to his freshman hype ever, but he would have been something this current team does not have: a contributing upper classmen.  And his presence, coupled with what would now be 3 years in Lavin’s system, would no doubt smooth the transitions of all these supposedly epic freshmen.  Truth be told, with all the turnover and whatnot, we were shocked when Amir Garrett came back to the team this year, especially in light of his ability to throw a baseball.

St. John’s is its own unique set of circumstances, so we don’t like comparing too much across programs, but if we did we’d probably wonder why Mike Rice has gotten Rutgers off the ground better, with virtually no inner turmoil.  Rice has made his recruiting base local, unlike Lavin, who, while recruiting some impressive locals, has a national recruiting base, reflected by a starting 5 with the 3 better players hailing from Texas, Detroit, and Chicago.  What we’d like to think is that Lavin is going to get the program rolling in full force, but it is year 3 already and we are looking at a very average team.  In a perfect world, coach Dunlap lays an excellent foundation in Lavin’s absence, with an intact 2011 class, which we felt, though a young squad, would have been a lot more talented than the team Lavin took to the tournament in 2010.

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In the actual world, St. John’s is almost starting from scratch in year 3 of the Lavin era, which puts them squarely behind most projections and the rule of thumb that says a new coach needs a good 3 years to turn around a flagging program.  We would have liked to see Lavin take the advice of coaches like Boheim and Calhoun who did not rush back too soon when similarly afflicted.  As much as we love Lavin, he’s not superman, and we feel the team would’ve been better off with a full year of Dunlap plus a full year of Lavin recovery time.

But we suspect that Lavin was indeed concerned, with the flighty nature and poor academic standing of his prized recruits, and that he feared even greater recruiting casualties.  That strikes us as more of a problem when one recruits so heavily nationally.  When kids have eligibility problems, they are likely to end up close to home.  Obviously college basketball is a tough business and it must have been a terrible feeling for the coach, who is a straight ahead guy, to lose traction in year 2 after generating such a healthy buzz around the program in such a short time.

We’d never judge the program’s savior too harshly.  As a St. John’s fan, it could always get worse, and we’ve even seen it border on the sublime.  In fact, we feel the university should extend Lavin’s contract.  Lavin is a national coach, a skilled recruiter, and is rebuilding St. John’s as a brand, which is a task that will necessitate a patient and understanding fan base.  Putting Harkless and Dunlap in the league–the first guy to ever go from a college assistant to a pro head coach, oh by the way–only reinforces the reformed St. John’s brand.

We don’t care that last year was a throw way season and as long as we see this young team make strides, we won’t get too wrapped up in its won/loss record.  What we do care about is the why and the how.  It is not often that the coach of a major program declares his own team dead in November as Lavin did last year, and when we see signs of continued stability problems like ineligibility and decommittments, then those are things we’d like to see addressed.

One suggestion along those lines is for Lavin to move away from JC players and other transfers, and to go harder at local products.  As we hear it,  Syracuse looks to have bested St. John’s locally the last 2 years, and next year as well.  One recruit choosing between the Red and the Orange said he had a better sense of Syracuse’s interest because they were more ‘present and diligent’ during the recruitment process. We are by no means a Duke but we do appreciate Coach K’s reluctance to take short cuts with that program.  Teams that take on a lot of transfers are more transient and less rooted, and so they in turn suffer more defections and NBA early birds, whereas a Duke suffers notoriously few.  We also think local kids are more likely to ride things out when closer to home.

St. John’s future is still enormously bright regardless even with these setbacks and delays, as long as Lavin stays, and we’d like to credit Lavin for bringing in a great class while recovering from testicular cancer, in the face of many questions about his future and that of the Big East.  Now we have to work on keeping that class at St. John’s, and finding a top flight point guard, preferably a local kid, not a stop gap national guy, to bind the whole thing together.

And oh yeah.  It wouldn’t hurt if a few guys found decent barbers.  We can live with growing pains, but these youngsters, who may not be from here, can at least rep NY in style.  While we might not always expect wins to be the norm with this evolving crew, we are definitely expecting a big performance on the garden floor Saturday against hack coach Tom Pecora (“nobody wanted any of us” LOL) and the second rate Fordham program.

Crack (https://crackbillionair.wordpress.com)

St. John’s star Dwight Hardy (above).

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As St. John’s opened the season at St.Mary’s in Northern California, alum and New York basketball demigod Chris Mullin looked on.  Sure Mullin is also connected through the Warriors to the Northern California basketball scene, but we thought that it was a good pull for Lavin in his debut.  We’ve watched, and been critical of this current team, while placing every possible faith in new coach Steve Lavin, who has quickly genereated a buzz.  In our critical mind, the losses to Fordham and St. Bonaventures, were ominous signs for the current squad, and made us temper our enthusiasm for the Lavin buzz, because as great as the recruiting has been, a season is going on, and the team right now is the team you have on the floor.

We watched as St. John’s slithered through the Holiday Festival, and went on record as saying we thought they’d take Northwestern, even if we couldn’t tell you why.  We watched as St. John’s scored a miraculous upset at West Virginia over a coach we respect in Bob Huggins, and then followed it up with the nice win at Providence.  But tonight, now that was some shit.  The Garden had a buzz about it.  Lou Carnesecca was seated in his perch in row 4–the Godfather.  Dejauan Blair of the San Antonio Spurs, in town to play the Knicks, was on hand to watch Pittsburgh buddy Dwight Hardy.  And the ever stylish Allan Houston of the New York Knicks front office–a good basketball man, was also there to see New York City’s finest college basketball go down.

Dwight Hardy didn’t disappoint his big name friend in attendance, scoring several clutch baskets down the stretch after St. John’s blew the lead in the final 5 minutes, and for the guy that Lavin called perhaps the best shooter he has ever coached, including UCLA stock such as Trace Murray and Jason Kapono, it was Hardy off the dribble that really killed Georgetown.  Hardy made 5-10 from the field and 10/1o at the line, and broke Georgetown down at will with a lightning first step.  St. John’s received impressive play–standout–from Justin Brownlee, who in addition to scoring 15 pts, added a very well rounded 7 rebounds and 6 assists in 40 minutes, and from the guy who Lavin called his “Bruce Bowen”, and who we had no idea had it in him–Paris Horne.  Horne, in one succession, had an immense defensive play in which he drew a charge, then grabbed an offensive board and in watching, we had to admit that the guy was everywhere.  And it was Brownlee, who, trailing 58-57 crashed the boards on an impressive run to the hoop that Hardy couldn’t finish, and converted the put back to take the lead once and for all. 

Lavin has said things all along that we attributed to him as having to say in order to get the most out of this basketball team.  Like after the upset at West Virginia, he said that the team is coming together and that their best basketball was ahead.  And after bad losses to the Bonnies and Fordham, Lavin said that he could feel the team improving and coming together.  Though we didn’t necessarily buy it, and chalked it up to coach speak, he wasn’t lying.  Lavin is showing himself as not just the king of networking–the guy who has been able to access and accentuate every aspect of St. John’s heritage, NYC, and the Garden as a home court to bring 6 top 70 basketball recruits here in next year’s class–but also as a supremely gifted coach with the talent he was given.  College basketball–the game in its purest form–is simple really when one breaks it down to the game’s common denominator, which is defense.  This team plays defense, and when you are in a 1 point game with a few minutes left, you have a chance, despite the names on the back of the jerseys.  Then there was the deft coaching move of shelfing both of the team’s horrible point guards, Malik Boothe and Malik Stith, who did not see a minute between them last night, instead opting to ride Kennedy, Hardy, and Brownlee for 40 minutes each.  Horne and Kennedy, taking the lion’s share of minutes in the backcourt–two guys who give you scoring (Hardy) and intangibles (both), have seen the Johnnies settle into this admirable identity, and have grown as a team.

With consecutive wins over Davidson, Northwestern, at West Virgina, at Providence, and at home versus #13 Georgetown, the team has already made a case for inclusion into the tournament, which would be its first such appearance in 10 years, if they could squeeze say another 10 wins out of the schedule, which they have navigated to an impressive 10-3 so far and a 3-0 count in the Big East.

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We couldn’t be happier with Lavin’s hiring and we’re sharpening our cutlery for the next time, say, a team like Fordham pops up on the schedule.  Tom Pecora?  You catch that game last night, troop?  Even though we didn’t want you, buddy, we hope you’re watching to see how a real coach does it.

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St. John’s guard and flat out awful basketball player Quincy Roberts (above).

St. John’s has rebounded from one of its worst ever losses, the 84-81 embarrassment suffered at the hands of Fordham last Saturday, with a gritty win in the Holiday Classic at Madison Square Garden last night.  In the marquee matchup of the evening, Steve Lavin’s crew overcame a 3 point halftime deficit, and “lit up” the scoreboard with a whopping 38 spot, on its way to a 62-57 win over a young but pretty good Davidson squad, coached by Long Island’s own Bob McKillop.

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On paper, we hated the matchup, knowing McKillop’s reputation for scrappy, well coached teams, and knowing St. John’s reputation these days, period.  But then again, Lavin and his heavyweight coaching militia had some 9 days to get the team ready for this tilt, and surely fired the boys up heading into their first game of the year at Madison Square Garden.  The Johnnies were led by D.J. Kennedy’s 7-9 from the field and 17 total, along with 9 rebounds.  To be honest, we are talking about a horrible basketball game, and frankly, we would be hard pressed to recall a game in which we saw more missed layups that didn’t even draw iron.  But a win is a win is a win, as unseemly as it was.  Sickened were we once again with the woeful point guard play as St. John’s totaled just 8 assists, while Boothe and Stith combined to make one (1) field goal and teamed for a mighty 5 points.  Maybe Lavin can bring in Knicks’ star Amar’e Stoudemire as a guest to chew out the pathetic crew of ones as he did in Cleveland Saturday night when he loudly criticized Toney Douglass for playing 23 minutes without an assist.

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At least the apple of eye and who we consider the only player worth watching on the team, Dwayne Polee II, contributed 6 points on 3 of 5 shooting, and made it look easy, albeit in limited minutes.  St. John’s looks for its second invitational tournament win this evening, and enjoys home court advantage, when they face Northwestern at 9:30 PM on the Garden floor.  For some reason, we have a good feeling about the game, though we’d advise you watch on an empty stomach.

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More good news for the Johnnies came this afternoon when Quincy Roberts, a 6’5 guard from Harrisburg, Pa. announced that he would transfer, perhaps as early as the spring semester.  Roberts plight would highlight the woeful recruiting acumen of Norm Roberts.  Under Lavin, and with pretty awful guards ahead of him on the depth chart, Quincy Roberts had played in just 4 games this season and has yet to make a meaningful contribution.  We highly doubt that Lavin chased after Roberts after the announcement came down.

Lately there has been rampant speculation that St. John’s has saved one of its remaining scholarships for sick California prospect by way of France, Remi Barry, who is better than Roberts by a mile in every facet of the game, and is longer, bigger, and more athletic as well.  Barry had gushed over his visit to St. John’s this summer, and called Steve Lavin ‘a guy you can trust.’

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We have a good feeling about tonight’s game for some reason.  And we want desperately to be right.  There is a huge difference between 6-4 and 7-3.

LET’S GO REDMEN!

Crack (https://crackbillionair.wordpress.com, www.crackbillionair.com)

Fordham coach Tom Pecora (above).

When he described the atmosphere at Fordham’s impish junior high-esque gym on Saturday night where Fordham defeated St. John’s 84-81, proud alum (we’re not impressed) Michael Kay used such lustrous superlatives that if you closed your eyes, or let your mind wander, or if you tuned in mid wildly exaggerated riff, you’d have thought Kay was describing Willis Reed coming out of the tunnel against the Lakers, Norwood’s wide right, or Kirk Gibson going yard while pinch hitting on a bum leg at the fall classic.  If you heard or read the remarks that Tom Pecora made to the little upset specialists that could, I mean, Knute Rockne reincarnate, right?

St. John’s didn’t want any of you.  They didn’t recruit any of you.  And they didn’t want me. 

Forgive us our lack of Jesuit sensibility, but damned right they didn’t.  Pecora–who we have been exceedingly kind to in this space–has done absolutely nothing in his coaching career.  He won 155 games at Hofstra in 9 years, inherited a nice little program from Jay Wright, who we apprenticed under for 7 years, won 20 games with Wright’s team, and has been chasing that dragon ever since.  In his lifetime, Pecora has coached a whopping zero NCAA tournament games.  To date, the finest thing he has done, in our opinion, was to some how catch Wright’s eye in the first place, to whom he owes his middling career.

Did a few small time press types link Pecora to the Johnnies job, Nassau County basketball reporters who lacked the ingenuity to put a real list of worthy candidates together, who just assumed St. John’s, because of its proximity to Hofstra, and probably because Wright has done a fine job at Villanova, thinking that Pecora was another Wright?  They sure did.  And Pecora obviously put on his prettiest under panties and squeezed into his tightest corset, believing such nonsense, while he waited for St. John’s to call, buying this delusion while St. John’s reached out to real coaches the likes of Billy Donovan, Paul Hewitt, and Steve Lavin.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, St. John’s!  And so it was on Saturday when Pecora coached the game of his life, in the midst of the coaching job of his life, coaxing Fordham, fresh off 2 wins last year to the game of its life, by hook or by crook.  Fordham already has 5 wins this year, and has notched wins over “powerhouses” such as St. John’s and Manhattan.  Let’s stop the season, call off the tournament in 2011 and declare the Rams champions of the universe.

Pecora is a great coach if you want a guy to go 2 games over .500 every year.  Wright is a guy who makes tournaments, recruits blue chips, and sends guys to the NBA.  Sure, we get that Hofstra has changed conferences under Pecora’s watch and now has a “legitimately” more hard time winning as it did when Wright was there.  And we don’t care.  Hofstra is like Kentucky compared to Fordham, and we’re completely sure that Mo Cassara isn’t there to clutch Pecora’s tired excuses as the new coach in Hempstead.

Kay said that Lavin “didn’t do anything” and that he was “frozen like a sphynx” on the sideline while Fordham made its epic run.  What’s he supposed to do?  Put in Sean Evans?  Go to a 5 guard lineup?  Lavin was probably shocked by the dismal state of his surroundings, and the abysmal talent on his own bench that he is just biding his time until he can be rid of.  Let’s be real.  This “big time” win for Fordham, which we called ourselves on Saturday–and no one loves St. John’s like us–came at the expense of a program that has not been to an NCAA tournament in 10 years.  Fordham may have that win, and Pecora his moment in the tepid sun, but the man has no class whatsoever.  Lavin took his lumps like a man, has won the PAC-10 and PAC-10 coach of the year, been to the sweet sixteen or better 5 times, and has never uttered such a laughable epitath.

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When Nurideen Lindsey puts up 25 on Fordham next year and Norvel Pelle has 8 monster dunks and St. John’s beats Fordham going away next year, and every other year but this one for that matter, Lavin will be a sphynx then too.  And why shouldn’t he be? 

After all, beating Fordham means nothing and beating Pecora happens all the time.  Steve Lavin will put way more effort into picking his pair of shoes or snazzy tie than those pre-game remarks.

Crack (https://crackbillionair.wordpress.com, www.crackbillionair.com)