With just two regular season games remaining in a 4-month campaign, the St. John's Red Storm (13-16, 6-10) are playing their best basketball yet. A thrilling 61-58 upset victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (20-9, 12-4) was the third in a win streak that has revitalized the team and its fans.
After they lose, we talk about the impossible situation of playing a six-man rotation with five freshmen and a JUCO transfer without its heralded head coach.
We hear words like 'unfortunate,' or the ever-popular 'unrealistic.'
When they win, the discussions change. The hopes aren't exclusively for development, a productive off-season, some added pieces, and a next year that feels more than an arm's length away. Today, a day after the Johnnies knocked off a nationally ranked opponent for the first time in a year, we are now talking about what St. John's can do - right now.
With road games ahead at Pittsburgh (4-11 in Big East play) and Rutgers (5-11 in the Big East), the "Fresh Five" has an opportunity to build on its current momentum and maybe even do something special at Madison Square Garden at the Big East Tournament.
More, below the fold.
When you think about it, St. John's has followed the expected trend of any young team. The Johnnies experienced early success against inferior opponents, struggled when they were prematurely challenged, lulled when the season became longer than they had ever played, and now a late February that has been kind to the Red Storm.
Throughout this three-game spurt, we've seen St. John's blossom. The individual improvement, the added comfort as a unit, and the ability to close out close games down the stretch is what is different from the first 25 games. And the league is taking notice.
"Nobody's a first-year player anymore [for St. John's]," Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. "St. John's has gotten better and they have some really nice pieces."
Whether they admit it or not, the Big East Tournament is certainly in the sights of these young kids. There is nothing better than when all 16 programs come together under the bright lights of the Garden for a five-day marathon of the best quality college basketball there is.
No one is expecting St. John's to make a Connecticut-like run. But with the way they are playing, there is no reason to believe the Red Storm can't start a rumble.
"We're just executing. We're tied together," said D`Angelo Harrison on Saturday. "The Garden is our home, so we want to take care of it."
If the season ended today, the Johnnies would finish in 11th place in the Big East and would face off with Villanova at 9:30pm on Tuesday (3/6) at the Garden. Waiting in the wings would be 6-seeded South Florida on Wednesday and possibly 3-seeded Notre Dame on Thursday.
That certainly doesn't sound 'impossible' or 'unrealistic,' even with six players on virtually no rest. Sometimes it isn't about who is the best, but rather who is playing the best at a given time. Tournaments, as we saw last year with the Huskies, can simply be about getting hot and developing a buzz. No one wants to step in front of a train moving at full speed.
There is still much to be decided in terms of seeding, especially with head-to-head games remaining against teams with similar records. A win here or a loss there can drastically change St. John's time slot and opponent road.
Wins over UCLA, DePaul, and Notre Dame has infused confidence back into a team that looked downtrodden after a 30-point loss to Seton Hall on Valentine's Day. Since that moment, something has changed.
"We discovered in the defeat to Seton Hall that we had to pick up our ball pressure," mentioned coach Mike Dunlap after Saturday's win. "We learned a lot from that game. Dom [Pointer], Amir [Garrett], [Moe] Harkless, God'sgift [Achiuwa] and all those guys are buying in to the pressure."
With the Red Storm's length, they can bother shooters as long as they can apply the pressure. When they become relaxed, teams kill them from the perimeter. Notre Dame had a lot of outside looks on Saturday, but many of them were affected by the Johnnies' pressure.
St. John's, led by the philosophies of Dunlap, has done a fantastic job taking an up-and-down season by a game-by-game basis. Even with the Big East Tournament just around the corner, the sights are strictly on Pittsburgh and what they need to do to win at the Petersen Center on Wednesday.
But when the ball is tipped at the Garden next week, St. John's might just be that team that no one wants to play.