Young Johnnies have NCAA Tournament dream on their minds

USA TODAY Sports

Already in the Bracketology conversation, St. John's travels to Syracuse on Sunday hoping to burnish the teams NCAA credentials.

Steve Lavin doesn't know if it will happen this year or next year. But his players know what they want.

St. John's (15-8, 7-4 Big East) has made the NCAA Tournament just once in its last 11 seasons. Before a March Sunday two years ago, it had been nine years of darkness.

This season has taken a turn for the better for the Red Storm. The team has won six of its last seven games after four losses in a five-game stretch that stranded them at 1-3 in an already-rugged conference. Less than a month later, the NCAA Tournament dream is somehow reachable and could be becoming a reality.

"The reason you work so hard as a college basketball player or coach is to be able to participate in one of the world's greatest sporting events, which is the NCAA Tournament," Lavin said on Friday. "When you're a little shaver or little muffin growing up, you're sitting on the couch dreaming of hitting buzzer shots in March Madness."

When the Johnnies beat Connecticut at the Garden on Wednesday, they surpassed last year's Big East win total with seven games left in this season. As of Friday afternoon, ESPN's expert "bracketologist" Joe Lunardi projects St. John's, who was predicted to finish 10th in the Big East, as a member of the field of 68.

But the climb is about to get steeper - much steeper - for the Red Storm. This weekend, they'll embark on a 300-mile trip to Syracuse for a clash with the 9th-ranked Orange. Then it's off to the Midwest to face #11 Louisville to cap the toughest duo of match-ups this league can offer.

"We talk about it a lot. We feel like if we win one [against Syracuse or Louisville], it would be big for us," JaKarr Sampson mentioned. "We talk among ourselves that we need one of these games."

Technically, St. John's doesn't need to win either game. In fact, no one really anticipates the Red Storm walking out of either the Carrier Dome or KFC Yum! Center victoriously.

But for a team that is trying to scrounge together a presentable NCAA Tournament portfolio, shocking the college basketball world couldn't hurt. The Johnnies are in better position than many would have thought they'd be in months ago - or, heck, weeks ago.

"None of us have ever been there before, but we know that we want to be one of the teams hearing our names called on Selection Sunday," Sampson continued. "We want to have that feeling that Coach Keady always talks about. That's something that I want to experience."

The Red Storm was shown on national television moments after being announced into the 2011 Big Dance. The jubilation on the faces of weathered veterans like D.J. Kennedy, Malik Boothe, Paris Horne, and Sean Evans wiped away the pain of three years of disappointment and unwarranted "progress."

Fast forward just two years, to the season that Steve Lavin has repeatedly coined as his most challenging yet. They're young. They're athletic. They're close.

"During the recruiting process, the objective is to be able to go dancing in March," Lavin said. "It's natural for our players to aspire to that. We're clear on a daily basis that it's the goal."

Clear the slate. You might as well call it a fresh, new season. St. John's still has plenty of work to do if it wants to get to its 29th NCAA Tournament in program history. It will begin in front of more than 20,000 dressed in orange on Sunday.

"They're big. That zone causes a lot of problems of teams. And they play well together," Sampson said. "I think we can win. Our coaching staff is getting us ready for a physical game."

These impressionable Johnnies want that special feeling that Mr. Myagi has been telling them about. As a freshman, Sampson has a pretty good idea of what it would be like.

"[It would be] a moment we'll never forget. A moment we'll remember for the rest of our lives."

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