Riding a six game win streak and a ranking of 15 in the AP Poll, St. John's will travel to the Prudential Center on New Year's Eve to battle against rival, Seton Hall, for the beginning of Big East Conference play.
St. John's had a terrific non-conference part of their schedule as they are out to their best start, 11-1, since 1985-86.
That being said, the Big East is a completely different brand of basketball because these teams are going to beat up on each other with a sense of toughness, experience and talent. The Johnnies are going to have to continue to prove themselves for a chance to defend their ranking and for a chance to achieve their goal of an NCAA Tournament berth.
The difference so far this season for the Johnnies has been their defensive execution and the improvement of Sir`Dominic Pointer.
There is a lot more of a commitment to intensity on defense and the 1-3-1 zone with Jamal Branch pressuring out top is a very good tactic for a team that has a lot of quickness to the ball. The Johnnies are only giving up 58.2 points per game, which is 32nd in the country, and they are also 25th in steals per game.
Sir'Dominic Pointer, who considered red-shirting this season, is having a breakout season and he is viewed as the X-factor for the Red Storm. He fills up the stat sheet night in and night out, 11.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.3 APG, and creates matchup problems when playing at the four position. Pointer has also stayed under more control this year, which has greatly helped him limit turnovers.
"He is making excellent judgements on when to attack offensively," Steve Lavin said. "It's the footwork and the body balance and his numbers reflect that."
Seton Hall comes into conference play with only two losses against Wichita State and Georgia but they also own a quality win at home versus a very legit George Washington team.
The big concern for Seton Hall is freshman guard Isaiah Whitehead being out with a stress fracture in his foot. He is expected to be in a boot the next two weeks before being re-evaluated with an MRI, according to the school. Whitehead is able to impact the game in multiple different ways and that certainly affects the Pirates game plan against the Johnnies.
"It's a pretty big hit to lose Isaiah," Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said. "It hurts us a little bit more defensively than offensively because of his high basketball IQ."
Jaren Sina, Sterling Gibbs and Khadeen Carrington will all have to step up with Whitehead out as they are facing arguably the strongest backcourt in the Big East.
"It's not easy (to stop St. John's backcourt)," Coach Willard said. "D'Angelo is playing at such a high level at an important time but what I'm most impressed with is how unselfish they are."
Even without Whitehead, this won't be a walk in the park matchup for the Johnnies. This will only be their second true road game of the season, the Pirates have plenty of talent and this is a rivalry game.
"If we play like we played in the second half against Tulane, we will get blown out at Seton Hall," Steve Lavin said.
Last year, the Red Storm failed to get out to a quick start in conference play and despite a late push they fell into too big of a hole to reach the NCAA Tournament.
This year must be a different story. A win against Seton Hall will be a perfect start.