The Johnnies are back in the field for the 30th time (with one vacated), for the first time since 2015, and only the fifth time since the turn of the century. They have not won a game in the tournament since 2000, when they topped Northern Arizona in the first round.
No, recent history isn’t on the Red Storm’s side. But the beauty of March is that every team has a shot, and that every team is going to give you their best shot.
In fact, plenty of 11 seed teams have advanced deep into the NCAA Tournament.
In 2006, the 11 seeded George Mason Patriots beat a great Connecticut Huskies team to advance to that years Final Four.
Five years later in 2011, with Shaka Smart at the helm, his VCU Rams made it to the Final Four.
Last season, the Syracuse Orange pushed all the way through Dayton and onto the Sweet Sixteen, topping a very good Michigan State team in the process.
Despite numerous question marks surrounding this St. John’s team, they have the talent to win a few games in the big dance. There are no guarantees, but there are dreams.
Here is a dream scenario for St. John’s making it deep into the NCAA Tournament. Close your eyes, focus on the lights of US Bank Arena in Minneapolis, the sights and sounds of red-clad fans, the rush of the city’s Minnehaha Falls...
First Four: Arizona State Sun Devils
The road to Minneapolis begins against the Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State team.
The Sun Devils finished the season with 22 wins, but were inconsistent — with nice victories against Mississippi State, Utah State, and Kansas, but losing to Vanderbilt, Princeton, and Washington State.
Arizona State likes to play fast and put points up on the scoreboard, scoring at least 80 points in almost half of their games played this season. Arizona State crashes the offensive glass hard, and about 22% of their total points this season have come from the free-throw line.
Still, they only shoot 67% as a team from the charity stripe, making them one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the country. In tight basketball games, missed free throws can hurt.
The Sun Devils rarely allow for teams to score easily on them inside. As much as they defend inside, they do foul opponents probably more times than Coach Hurley would like.
How can St. John’s win? The way St. John’s can beat Arizona State is by shooting the ball well. These Sun Devils will likely give the Johnnies a chance not only to score from the free-throw line, but also from deep.
St. John’s is an above average shooting team from the foul line, and from the perimeter. If they can minimize foul issues, and shoot the ball well, then the Johnnies can advance.
Round of 64: Buffalo Bulls
If St. John’s can survive until Friday, they will matchup with the Buffalo Bulls for the first time in program history.
Coached by Nate Oats, the Bulls have only lost three times this season. They spent much of the season in the top 25, and won both the MAC regular season crown and tournament title.
A 6 seed, and ranked most of the season (the Bulls were not ranked in the preseason), Buffalo is no cupcake mid-major.
The Bulls love to run, and according to KenPom, their average possession length is the third shortest in the country. They rarely turn the ball over, and they like to attack the basket as much as possible. Buffalo is not a three-point shooting team. Their offense is very fast, and it hopes to beat you by going at the basket.
Defensively, they slow teams down, defend the three, and force a lot of turnovers. Physical junior guard Davonta Jordan leads the way averaging almost two steals per contest.
How can St. John’s win? These two teams play a very similar brand of basketball. Both love to push the pace, get a steal and go out in transition.
St. John’s certainly has the playmakers to run with Buffalo, and a poised performance with tough, foul-drawing play from Shamorie Ponds and Mustapha Heron could get the Red Storm close. Justin Simon’s defense, Clark’s shooting and LJ Figueroa’s toughness come up big.
With a sturdy defensive showing that limits wide-open looks from three and cuts off slashing drives, they could beat the Bulls — just as Marquette did in December.
Round of 32: Texas Tech Red Raiders or Northern Kentucky Norse
Let’s assume Texas Tech will beat Northern Kentucky. Analytics website FiveThirtyEight gives the Norse a 9% chance of winning, after all.
If the Red Raiders do indeed survive, they could give any opponent a ton of trouble. They only lost to one non-tournament team this season, and that was a spirited West Virginia in the Big 12 Tournament.
Coached by Chris Beard, Texas Tech is a very well-balanced team. Nonetheless, they win their games because of their stout defense. KenPom rates them the best defensive team in the nation. They keep dribblers in front of them, they turn opponents over, they block shots, and they rebound just well enough.
One reason Texas Tech is a defensive menace this season is former St. John’s big man Tariq Owens, who is averaging just over two blocks per game.
The Red Raiders also have the potent guard Jarrett Culver. He is the first player in Texas Tech history to win the Big 12 Player of the Year award. He averages about 18 points, six rebounds, and four assists per game. Possibly pitting Culver against Shamorie Ponds would be very interesting to watch.
How can St. John’s win? For St. John’s to advance out of the first weekend, they would need some serious scoring from not only Ponds, but all their other scorers as well. The Johnnies would need to get some lucky bounces, some high level play from LJ Figueroa, to run in transition, and see Tech have real struggles on offense.
Sure, why not?
Sweet 16: Michigan, Nevada, Florida, or Montana
The clear favorite in the lower half is clearly Michigan, although pesky Nevada and Florida teams may have what it takes to make some noise during the first weekend. Barring a Montana upset, those three teams are really the teams to watch for.
At this point, St. John’s would be one of the darlings of the Tournament, with Shamorie Ponds now known to be one of the most exciting players in the Tourney. But this side of the bracket, particularly Michigan, will require otherworldly play to compete with.
Michigan is a very strong, big and physical defensive team, and they can throw teams out of their rhythm very quickly by forcing them away from the three-point line — without fouling.
How can St. John’s win? For St. John’s to beat a team like Michigan, they have to get lots of scorers heavily involved, slash hard to the rim, and keep Michigan from scoring inside. Justin Simon and Mustapha Heron come up big in this scenario, with a lot of hustle plays from LJ Figueroa.
Yes, this is unlikely. But who would have predicted Loyola-Chicago making the Final Four last season?
What if Montana is in the Sweet Sixteen?
How can St. John’s win? The undersized, strong-shooting Montana squad would be a solid matchup for St. John’s, where Shamore Ponds would need to carry the Johnnies past the Grizzlies with a virtuoso performance. Montana’s experience would be tough to beat, however.
Wait, what about Nevada, a Sweet Sixteen team last year?
How can St. John’s win? Nevada’s size and shooting would be hard to guard. But perhaps St. John’s would whip out a zone and, for the first time this season, run it well enough to flummox the Wolfpack. Perhaps gifted with talent, the Pack would not take St. John’s seriously and realize too late that the Johnnies play basketball too.
Hey, what about Florida?
How can St. John’s win? Fairly poor shooters but talented, and with the ability to slow down the game with their extended pressure, St. John’s would face an ugly game against the Gators. Frustrated with not being able to force turnovers, the Gators start fouling and the Johnnies win a close one.
Elite Eight: Gonzaga, Florida State, Marquette, Syracuse, Baylor, Murray State, Vermont, or Fairleigh Dickinson
The West Region’s upper half is a very intriguing compilation of teams. Most of the teams on this side of the region are capable of moving on in this tournament.
Gonzaga is the 1 seed in this region, and once again dominated the WCC. They did not win their conference tournament, falling to Saint Mary’s after winning 21 straight. Outside of their loss to Saint Mary’s, their only two losses have come against Tennessee and North Carolina. They are also the only team to defeat Duke at full strength.
The Zags dominated a solid West Coast Conference and have a lot of strong star-level depth.
How can St. John’s win? This one will require an act of God, perhaps, and an otherworldly performance by Shamorie Ponds — and maybe LJ Figueroa.
Of course, a number 1 seed can be upset.
Florida State and Syracuse are tough teams out of the ACC. The Orange specifically are a dangerous team to prepare for on short notice, due to their zone defense. If Syracuse gets by Baylor, and their defense is running at full capacity, Jim Boeheim’s squad could slip by Gonzaga.
In that case...
How can St. John’s win? St. John’s has defeated Syracuse three straight times, and suddenly the Orange stopped scheduling the Red Storm. The Johnnies would suddenly find their shooting stroke against the Orange; Marvin Clark II and Bryan Trimble, Jr. would explode for a combined 36 from the corners.
The most captivating one-on-one matchup in the region is Marquette versus Murray State. Lottery pick Ja Morant will square off with Big East Player of the Year Markus Howard. Both teams are high-octane, and should provide the Hartford, Connecticut crowd with a competitive game.
What if Marquette goes on a run?
How can St. John’s win? St. John’s will rediscover the stifling play that stopped Markus Howard, get Sacar Anim in foul trouble, and get the Golden Eagles to doubt themselves — as St. Johhn’s runs away with the game.
What if Ja Morant and the Murray State Racers win?
How can St. John’s win? In the most hotly-anticipated game by NBA scouts, Ja Morant gets his, but St. John’s borrows from Duke’s aggressive game plan against St. John’s this season to slow him down, while getting hot in transition.
How about Baylor?
How can St. John’s win? This is a tough one. Baylor’s extreme offensive rebounding and long threes, if they get to this point, are probably functioning well. St. John’s would need to force lots of turnovers and get the Bears to play sloppy basketball. Figueroa and Greg WIlliams Jr. block a number of shots out of nowhere.
And Florida State?
How can St. John’s win? This bracket has Florida AND Florida State? That’s a lot of sunshine! The Seminoles of Florida State are a particularly bad matchup, blessed with height, elite defense and the ability to get to the line. But now prepared for breakout Tournament star Mfiondu Kabengele, St. John’s stifles the big man (and fellow big 7’4” Christ Koumadje) and pull out a tough game with a late flurry of threes.
Anything can happen in the tournament, with confidence, grit and talent.
Between Shamorie Ponds, Justin Simon, L.J Figueroa. Marvin Clark III, and Mustapha Heron, the Johnnies are very talented. Despite their depth issues, if the Red Storm can get the most out of their stars, they can be the fearsome force that was expected in the beginning of the season.
Give us some scenarios you could see happening — good and bad.