Column: at the lackluster end of NCAA Tournament hopes, many questions bubble up

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In the aftermath of yesterday afternoon's 79-74 loss to Providence, there is rancor about the final result, but an appreciation of the fight the team showed.

The NIT is looming, a chance to make a run and play in front of the home fans in Madison Square Garden. The season is not over, but it has fallen short of expectations.

Fans are rightfully disappointed, confused about how a team can look so good and so bad in the same season, usually in the same game. Confused about how this came to be. Questioning the talent and the man in charge.

And after all, how much honor is there in facing a similar team in similar straits, a team that St. John's had hung with in both games this season, and coming up very short before desperation pressing brought the Johnnies back into the game?

Remember, Providence's one win over St. John's came when a part-time player fell victim to an obvious inbound trap by the Friars, giving them possession and the chance to win, which they took.

St. John's shouldn't have been in must-win position last night - or since mid-January.

The season, given the experience and talent, should not have been this volatile.

No shade to Providence, who found a hot hand and for a stretch looked like a well-oiled machine forged through so many minutes of iron man basketball. Well, a little shade gets thrown their way for inexplicably letting the game get within one point after pounding the Johnnies by 17 in the middle of the second half, repeating the rhythms of the season and of so many of their games.

Mike Vaccaro notes this in his column today, where he talks about Lavin's need to match the hopes he has elevated verbally and through his recruiting success.

Just as the Johnnies had started the season in a fog, they spent the first 34 minutes of this game in a funk. They were 0-5 after five league games; they were trailing 63-46 with 6:10 left in the game. They’d slept through the wake-up call on the first third of their season, then blew off the alarm clock on the first three-quarters of the most critical game of the year.

Inexplicable. And inexcusable. Please, set aside the frantic comeback that followed, the way the Johnnies sliced 16 points off that 17-point lead, which was as much a product of egregious Friars foul shooting as anything else. Don’t get too agitated by a couple of unfriendly whistles late; that’s a loser’s lament.

Focus on this: in a season of such grand — and welcomed — expectation, the Johnnies couldn’t answer the bell. And in a game that could well have delivered them to the brackets, they pulled a similar no-show. It ended 79-74. But it was lost long before.

Despite the words about the team's grit and moxie, this is a team that should have taken a down Big East and rocketed up the charts.

But this season saw St. John's lose winnable games (and struggle in blowout opportunities), then turn about and win games they might have lost in years past - to Creighton, to Seton Hall on the road, to Marquette on the road.

Blame for a season that failed to meet its expectations of the NCAA Tournament (though the quantitative prognosticators thought the Johnnies were a bubble team BEFORE the season started) lies on the shoulder of the coach, but not the coach alone.

Given the chance to flash their talents, the players didn't perform as well as they had for the month of February.

The season is not over, despite what some think, and despite Chris Obekpa's benching last night. (Our man on the scene reports that it is true that Obekpa had some disagreement with the coaching staff and was benched partly because of his reaction, which teammate and close friend Phil Greene IV appeared to lecture him about - these things do happen in the midst of games.)

The NIT looms, a respectable tournament and a chance for players to get prepared for next year, where most of the team should be back. Expect conference mates Georgetown and Marquette to be there; and one wonders if there is space for Seton Hall if they win tonight, assuming Providence gets in.

But even as the team (hopefully) prepares to win the NIT and wipe the taste of this loss out of their mouths, each and every member of the program has to ask themselves what they could have done better.

How they could have been more flexible.

How they could have communicated better.

How they could have defended better.

How they could have held on to leads better.

How the downs could have been smoothed and the ups maintained.

We all have answers from the sidelines, but the changes - and the real answers - come from the team of men in the locker room, practicing, planning, scheming for wins as members of the St. John's program. Where will they go from here?

Will the disappointment haunt them into the NIT, like Kentucky's did last season (the Wildcats lost to Robert Morris in the 1st round of the NIT despite numerous first-round NBA draft picks).

Or will they start answering the questions on the minds of the fans and media with their play?

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