St. John’s NCAA tournament: The hard part starts right at the beginning

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After suffering a pair of difficult losses in this weekend's Big East Tournament—a 79-73 defeat to Syracuse, and senior D.J. Kennedy to a season-ending knee injury—St. John's prospects in the NCAA tournament are ... mixed. The team is still good enough to make a run deep into the tournament, even without Kennedy, but their most significant challenge could be their first-round game.

St. John's received the six seed in the Southeast region, and will travel to Denver Colorado for their first two games, beginning Thursday night at 9:45 PM against the 11 seed, Gonzaga.

Gonzaga, a team that regularly defies expectations by outperforming their tournament seeding, has had a different kind of year in 2010-11. They were ranked 12th in the country in both of the major preseason Top 25 polls, but they struggled early on, dropping from the rankings. Only a win in the West Coast Conference tournament, and the automatic bid it conferred on them, guaranteed that Gonzaga would make the expanded NCAA tournament field of 68.

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But against a quick but undersize St. John's team, Gonzaga presents significant matchup problems. Robert Sacre, a 7'0, 260 pound senior center, is perhaps their best player, and is averaging 13.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game over his last five contests. And his heir apparent at the position, Sam Dower, scored in double figures in three of the final five games, even blocking five shots in a recent victory over Cal State Bakersfield.

What the St. John's players do have going for them is that they play a defense geared toward upsetting offensive flow, which is the foundation of the up-tempo Gonzaga gameplan.

If St. John's can defeat Gonzaga, they'd move on to a Saturday matchup against number 3 seed BYU (assuming the Cougars dispatch 14 seed Wofford). This offers St. John's a far more favorable opponent, despite the presence of the explosive Jimmer Fredette, the nation's leading scorer. Fredette averages 28.5 points per game, and last Friday against New Mexico, he scored 52 points.

The problem BYU has is that aside from Fredette, they don't have much else. The team's leading rebounder, Brandon Davies, is out for the season for violating the team's honor code. The team's only other double-figure scorer, Jackson Emery, shot just 10-for-35 in the Mountain West Conference tournament. Expect St. John's to employ a similar strategy against Fredette to the one that held Kemba Walker to 4-of-16 shooting in a win over Connecticut earlier this year.

If they make it past BYU to the Sweet 16, their likeliest opponent would be Florida. And the Gators, despite a tremendous front line, are coming off of a 70-54 loss to Kentucky, thanks in large part to a pressure defense quite similar to that of St. John's. In a halfcourt game, the Red Storm would have a difficult time—the only rebounder St. John's had with more per game than each of the three Florida frontcourt players was the now-injured Kennedy—but at the St. John's tempo, Florida would have trouble. The Gators haven't been tested much, and when they were, against the Wildcats, they were found wanting.

St. John's might actually have a tougher time if seventh-seeded UCLA upsets Florida in the second round. The Bruins beat St. John's earlier this year, and UCLA's Reeves Nelson grabbed 17 rebounds against them—roughly as many as the 18 rebounds from St. John's entire starting five.

A win over Florida, UCLA, or two other possible Sweet 16 opponents (10 seed Michigan State, 15 seed UC Santa Barbara) would advance St. John's to the Elite Eight, where a likely matchup against top-seeded Pittsburgh then stands between Steve Lavin's club and the Final Four.

St. John's game last month against Pitt represents the apex of their season so far. A delirious Madison Square Garden crowd celebrated after a last-second Dwight Hardy layup sealed a win over the Panthers, 60-59. Pitt presents the matchup problems many teams do for St. John's. But as that previous game showed, Lavin has a blueprint for how to beat the number one seed in the bracket. March Madness got its nickname for a reason—any team can come along and upend St. John's season, just as St. John's, seeded six, will have a chance to do some upsetting of their own. The funny thing for them this tournament is that their first step toward the Final Four may end up being the toughest one.