Amidst excitement, Steve Lavin & St. John's recognize they have much to prove

Despite being 6-3, Lavin knows he has a lot to learn about his St. John's team. - Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The next nine games will test the Johnnies' mettle. Are they ready to be a top-four Big East team?

Don't you worry, haters, nattering nabobs of negativism, and eye-narrowed naysayers.

The Red Storm fully understand that they have enjoyed an easy ramp up to the tough part of the Big East season, and that the seas ahead looks rocky and filled with NBA-caliber terrors.

St. John's may be in third place in the standings at 6-3, ahead of Louisville, Cincinnati, and Georgetown - but there is much to be proven on the court. The Red Storm's defense is currently third-best in defensive efficiency; but offensively, the Johnnies struggle to score points or close out opponents from the free throw line (shooting 62% from the line in conference play).

"We're still a major work in progress," Lavin said after the 79-74 overtime win over struggling DePaul, "but I'm pleased with the overall direction of the program and the team. Tonight I'm pleased with the victory, but we know we still have our hands full in the conference."

The coming schedule includes road games at two of the league's largest and most intimidating venues, Louisville's KFC Yum! Center and Syracuse's Carrier Dome, along with rematches against Georgetown at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. and a trip to Notre Dame's Joyce Center, where long home win streaks are as common as four-leafed clover on clothing.

While South Florida (1-7 in the Big East) and Providence (2-6) are on the docket, the excitement about the hot start has to be tempered with the reality that the Johnnies' scoring struggles may be forgiven against the likes of sloppy DePaul or streaky Seton Hall... but not against the Big East's elite names.

"Teams are probably still doubting us because if you look at our schedule we’ve played the bottom half of the league," D`Angelo Harrison said. "We're looking to prove ourselves at Georgetown next."

St. John's will likely not be favored in many of the coming games, and early-season struggles leave the team's RPI (55) and Pomeroy Rankings (96) lower than a squad that hopes for the NCAA Tournament would like.

Moreover, the Red Storm face a leap in quality. The average in-conference win-loss percentage for the upcoming teams is 56%; the teams the Johnnies already played are winning 40% of the time. The upcoming teams' average RPI is 45, their Pomeroy Rank is 39; the teams the Red Storm have played had rankings of 80 and 81, respectively.

At the midpoint: First half of Big East Season vs Second Half
Segment
Opp W
Opp L
Opp Pom. Rk
Opp RPI Rank
Opp W-L%
First nine games
13
7
80.9
80.3
0.397
Second nine games
15
5
38.9
44.8
0.558
W
L
Pom. Rk
RPI Rk
W-L%
St. John's
14
7
96
55
0.667

But that's why they play the games, right?

The Johnnies will need to take the growth of Sir`Dominic Pointer and add consistency from the team's non-D`Angelo scorers (Jamal Branch, Phil Greene IV, and Jakarr Sampson) to improve the offense. The team already does a good job of not turning the ball over, and did last year as well; the next step is taking those aggressive shots and scoring on attempts more efficiently.

The improvement that has powered the streak is a stingy defense that has confused opponents into turning the ball over on almost 22% of their possessions, not committing fouls, disrupting passing lanes, and the lengthy defenders who harass opponents into shooting under 43% inside the arc against the likes of Chris Obekpa and Dom Pointer.

The winning streak isn't luck, a desert mirage, or a mermaid on a rock. The team is gaining a defensive identity and putting their athletes to intimidating use. Some even whisper that the team has turned a corner.

But for his part, Lavin isn't riding too high on the hype of a winning streak.

"After three years in this league as a coach, I have found you just can't look for any universal truths out of a stretch of four or five games," Lavin said. "Just keep coaching and stay on the path of improvement until we see how things finish. You have to wait for the body of work.

"We could still be a year away, and we could be ahead of schedule. We just don't know."

The next nine games give the Red Storm the chance to play their way into the NIT or NCAA Tournaments (neither is a given at this stage in the season).

It's plausible that the league will send 6-8 squads to the NCAA Tournament, and it's important to be positioned in the middle of the conference, poised to take advantage of off-nights from the elites and able to take care of business against lesser squads.

In these next nine games, the best and worst of the young St. John's team will come out to form the body of work. Jakarr Sampson, reigning Big East Rookie of the Week and prohibitive favorite to win Rookie of the Year, is licking his chops.

"This is why I came to St. John's, to play big-time games like Louisville and Syracuse," he said. "We want to compete with those teams."

The month of February could see another Lavin team come together into a fearsome unit late in the season.

Or it could be a reminder that the talent of the Johnnies might need more seasoning.

Either way, this month is the Johnnies' proving ground. What matters most is how well the Storm walks through the fire*.

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