11:32 am Mar. 8, 2011
The Big East Tournament begins today at Madison Square Garden with the eight lowest seeds in a 16-team league squaring off. But unlike recent seasons, when St. John's found itself in that bottom scrum (or worse, when the league only invited the top 12 finishers, shutting them out of playing on their own home court), the Red Storm received a bye.
This is going to be St. John's best chance to make a run deep into both the Big East and NCAA Tournaments since their glory days in the '80s.
Consider what St. John's has going for it. While the team is just 20-10 overall, and 12-6 in the Big East, many of the losses were sustained early in the season. The two worst losses, to St Bonaventure and Fordham, were recorded in December. But since those losses to a pair of teams with Ratings Percentage Index rankings (computerized analysis of teams based on factors such of wins and strength of schedule) below 150, they have topped eight teams with an RPI in the top 50—usually considered the cutoff line for NCAA-bound teams.
And in the strongest conference in America—and arguably one of the strongest in the history of college basketball—St. John's has an 8-2 record over its last ten games. The best team in the conference is Pitt, and St. John's them, 60-59. The second-best is Notre Dame, and St. John's routed the Irish, 72-54.
Other than a loss last Thursday to Seton Hall—they were undone by an uncharacteristically poor defensive performance—St. John's has also taken care of business against lesser teams. (It was frequently a criticism of the teams that St. John's coach Steve Lavin led at UCLA that they tended to play down to poor opposition; some of that history resurfaced after the Fordham and St. Bonaventure losses.) St. John's may get a chance to avenge the Seton Hall loss on Wednesday, depending whether Seton Hall can beat Rutgers beforehand. Syracuse, the conference's fourth seed, awaits to present what should be a difficult match-up on Thursday.
But if the Red Storm overcomes the Orange, and the tournament stays true to seeding, that would leave St. John's needing to conquer Pitt and Notre Dame—two teams they've already beaten.
Regardless of the team's showing at Madison Square Garden this week, St. John's figures to be no worse than a five seed in the NCAA Tournament. ESPN's Joe Lunardi has them as a four seed in the East region, which would make them a favorite to advance to the Sweet 16, then face top overall seed Ohio State in an epic battle to be played at the Prudential Center in Newark. It's fair to say St. John's would have the home-court advantage in that one, for what it's worth.
Significantly, this team seems to be built for tournament play. In Dwight Hardy, St. John's has a top scorer whose 17.8 season average, like the team's overall record, doesn't tell the story of his season. Beginning with St. John's 93-78 win over Duke—a top ten team—Hardy scored 26 or more in five of his team's last 11 games, including three games of 32 or more.
They are a deep team, with nine players averaging double figures in minutes. They defend extremely well and usually take good care of the ball, placing among NCAA leaders in turnover margin. That alone is likely to keep them in games as long as they survive and advance in March.
They have significant weaknesses, too. One reason Syracuse dominated them is that the St. John's roster doesn't include a real sharpshooter. Paris Horne is just under 38 percent from three-point range, and the team is at 33 percent overall. That is fine, not great, but without a significant interior presence, it's a potentially big limitation.
And while St. John's had trouble shooting Syracuse out of its famous 2-3 zone, the team's inability to rebound—St. John's is 286th in the country in rebounds per game—proved insurmountable against the league's top rebounder, Rick Jackson. A team with a significant interior presence, like Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, for instance, could cause St. John's real problems.
But the chances are, given their seeding, that St. John's won't face a player like Sullinger until at least the Sweet 16. And even against Pitt, a team with three players 6'9” or taller in its rotation, St. John's found a way to stay even on the boards. Lavin seems to have St. John's working harder than any other team in the conference, helping then even out the size disadvantages while making the most of their strengths.
The result is a team that could play deep into March, and for the first time in years, has a puncher's chance of making it to April.