Let’s go back to Dec. 28 at the Barclays Center.
St. John’s had just finished beating Columbia 65-59 in the opening game of the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival. The Red Storm struggled from start to finish, but made some key plays in the game’s final minutes to pull out a victory.
One thing was abundantly clear at that point of the season: St. John’s wasn’t ready for conference play.
After the game, head coach Steve Lavin talked about processes and maturing. He talked about the positives during the 9-3 non-conference portion of the schedule despite the Johnnies often sleepwalking through games with lesser opponents. The gathered media peppered him with questions about the Johnnies’ readiness for the new Big East. Lavin, to his credit, never folded and said one thing that resonates loudly some six weeks later.
"I think by mid-February, this could be a dangerous team," Lavin said.
Well, we’re in mid-February, and St. John’s is indeed a dangerous team.
"It wasn’t a crystal ball that made me predict this team would gel by February," Lavin said Wednesday. "We knew that it would take time to finally be competitive."
The combination of Rysheed Jordan's development, integrating three "new" players in Max Hooper, God`sGift Achiuwa and Orlando Sanchez - who had shoulder surgery - and other factors slowed the gelling process, in Lavin's estimation.
After starting the conference season 0-5, the Red Storm have gelled into a cohesive unit and finally snatched the signature win they sought all season Sunday night against Creighton. In the eyes of bracket prognosticators, the win puts St. John’s on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament bid.
"Like life itself we don't always see the rewards of our hard work right away," Lavin added, "but we are now a better team as a result of what we learned from the school of hard knocks."
With the winning streak the Johnnies are crafting, St. John’s has some things in its favor with the selection committee. They own two wins against teams (Creighton and Providence) in the top 50 of the RPI - assuming that both teams remain in the top 50. The Johnnies rank 38 in strength of schedule. The question now becomes how does the team finish out the remainder of their schedule.
St. John’s enters tonight’s game against Seton Hall having won six of their last seven games. While they don’t need to run the table from now until March 8, they need to win at least nine to ten conference games (5-6 at the moment) to be in the conversation for the Big Dance. Combine that with a good run in the Big East Tournament and a Tourney berth is a realistic possibility.
History shows that some Lavin-coached UCLA teams had a habit of making late season runs en route to some solid showings in the NCAA Tournament. While Lavin could never get UCLA into the Final Four, they were a consistent threat in the Tourney - something St. John’s needs to get back to.
As for this season’s squad, it’s very possible they only lose two more games in the regular season. Tonight’s game is winnable. But Georgetown is playing better as they loom on Sunday. After that it’s Butler, who St. John’s already beat on the road. The big game to circle on the calendar is Feb. 22 against Villanova in Philadelphia. If the Red Storm can somehow pull out a win there, that cements a Tourney appearance as long as they don’t falter the rest of the way.