St. John's came into this season with a bevy of talented players ready to perform under head coach Steve Lavin. With a healthy coach and a deep roster, the Johnnies are 8-4 headed into Big East play.
But, in reality, they should have a better record.
The old sayings of "could have", "should have", and "would have" can all be properly distributed throughout the Red Storm's losses this season, and rightfully so.
There is no more pertinent example than Friday night's debilitating loss to UNC-Asheville. After being up 17 points, St. John's was unable to hold on to the lead and ultimately walked off the court with their heads low and disappointed in a lackluster second half performance.
"Even though we built a 17-point lead, I never felt comfortable. We never found a rhythm defensively," said coach Lavin during the post game press conference.
That lack of defensive rhythm allowed UNC-Ashville forward Jeremy Atkinson to net a career-high 31 points, including three 3-pointers.
Despite a considerable size advantage, St. John's was out rebounded 40-30, which included 13 allowed Bulldog offensive boards. The disparity helped UNC-Asheville score 17 second chance points.
JaKarr Sampson and D`Angelo Harrison continue to shine offensively, but Phil Greene IV has faded. The sophomore guard hasn't been as effective in recent games as he was to start the season. Greene scored in double figures in six of the Storm's first seven games, yet hasn't hit that threshold since their win over South Carolina on November 29th.
The Red Storm can't expect Sampson and Harrison to be the sole leaders on the court.
Chris Obekpa has been doing a solid job down low blocking shots and rebounding (8 rebounds, 6 blocks vs. UNC-Ashville) but he can't be the only man in the paint. Sampson had double figure rebounds against Fordham and St. Francis, but grabbed only 3 boards in 27 minutes against UNC-Asheville.
Sir'Dominic Pointer and Amir Garrett are both playing supplementary roles, and Christian Jones isn't getting the minutes many had expected. With Orlando Sanchez's return seeming more unlikely by the day, St. John's needs to find a way to rebound by committee.
The loss to UNC-Asheville had similarities to the Murray State game earlier in the season. The Red Storm controlled much of that game, yet allowed the Racers to go on a critical late 20-8 run. In Friday's contest, UNC-Ashville went on a 23-4 run over a stretch slightly longer than 7 minutes.
In the game against Baylor, St. John's held a 9-point lead. That too evaporated and the Red Storm were faced with defeat, anguish, and a lot of questions left unanswered.
"If you look at our games, we were up nine on Baylor, up 13 on Murray State and up 17 tonight. So if we sustain, we'd probably be 11-1 and ranked 15th in the country tonight," Lavin said. "We'd be the same group of players, with the same flaws and deficiencies as the team that's 8-4."
The problem is that St. John's isn't 11-1. They are 8-4 with a lot of things needed to be addressed. Perhaps luckily for Lavin and his squad, they have some time to do it.
The Red Storm are on break for 11 days before their Big East opener at Villanova (7-4), where they'll meet a Wildcats team that has experienced similar struggles early on this season.
St. John's is allowing itself opportunities to win games, but haven't yet found a way to piece together 40 minutes of sustained basketball. It may seem that the Johnnies are far from prosperity, but the margin between their current position and national recognition isn't all that large.
With ten freshmen and sophomores, Lavin's school is always in session. So, where do they go from here?
Back to the drawing board.