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Avoiding December overconfidence as St. John's gets ready for conference play with tough foes

The Red Storm are nationally ranked, riding a wave of success and primed for a pair of statement non-league victories. The big question though, is how do they get there?

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

This is going to be the year to finish unfinished business.

A year removed from a season-ending loss, as a No. 1 seed no less, in the first-round of the NIT, the Red Storm was going to change.

So far? Those haven't been blustery words.

he No. 20/23 Red Storm, the program's highest national ranking since 2011, have posted an 8-1 record so far this season. The Johnnies are averaging 73.3 points per game, led by senior D`Angelo Harrison who picked up his second straight Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association player of the week honors earlier this week.

The stats have been impressive. Harrison, and his 19.7 points per game, has been impressive. The defense, the offense, the team chemistry.

It's all been impressive.

Now what?

That's the big question - the season still has more than three months.  With a pair of non-conference games against Saint Mary's and Long Beach State on the slate for this Friday and Monday night, and a Tulane team currently sporting an 8-1 record, the Red Storm face perhaps their biggest non-conference test of the season - avoiding the pitfalls of over-confidence.

"This group has made steady, measurable progress from 13 wins as freshman, to 17 wins as sophomores, 20 wins as juniors and now 8-1 in the Top 25 as seniors," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said following his team's 74-53 victory over Fordham on Sunday. "It's clear that this is a group that has matured and developed their game, both individually and collectively, during their time here."

That maturity has to be the key if St. John's is going to wrap up its non-conference schedule on a high note, before the Big East opener against Seton Hall on New Years Eve.

Things like Chris Obepka being ejected from the Fordham game after picking up two technical fouls cannot happen.
Poor shot selection by one the country's top backcourts, cannot happen.

St. John's is one of the most experienced teams in the country, and now, at this point in the season and this point in all six of these senior's careers, that experience has to be the driving factor behind every single thing they do.

"This group has adapted and adjusted as well as any I've had," Lavin told ESPN's CoachSpeak on Wednesday. "Their resilience, their resolve to continue to climb up the mountain inspires me. When we came here five years ago, as a staff we knew it was an arduous task or mission, but we signed on for it because we saw the potential to restore a once proud, great program. And we're closer. Coaches don't get too far ahead of themselves, so I can't get too carried away with projections. But I'm very pleased with where we are as a program and the direction we're headed."

There will, of course, be obstacles on the way to a Big East title.

Obepka will get into foul trouble this season. It is almost a given. He is a shot-blocker, first and foremost, and he will attract whistles.

What he cannot attract is unnecessary calls based off an emotional outburst, no one on this team can.

St. John's is aware of this and the Storm know that, sometimes, they are going to be forced to play small, maybe even showing a five-guard look as they did early this season.

That is not the end of the world and it won't be the end of the game when St. John's inevitably goes small against both St. Mary's and Long Beach State. It is simply a matter of adjusting the mindset.

"We have a couple of good players that can play," senior Jamal Branch said. "Coach likes to throw a couple of curveballs and sliders at us, so we just have to be ready to play like we did (on Sunday)."

This is not an easy set of games for the Storm.

St. Mary's (6-2) took down Creighton last week with a 71-67 overtime victory before dropping a 71-73 loss to Northern Arizona and Brad Waldow is averaging a game-high 21 points in just over 32 minutes of game-play. Long Beach State (5-6) meanwhile boasts wins over Kansas State and Xavier with No. 9 Texas on Saturday's schedule and is currently shooting nearly 40% from behind the arc. Tulane's wins have been over weak competition, but 8-1 is still a strong start.

The defense has to stand tall for the next three games.

Currently, St. John's is giving up just 60.6 points per game, allowing teams to shoot an average of just over 36% from the floor.

Add into the mix that the Red Storm has forced 128 total turnovers in the first nine games of the season and the defensive pressure that St. John's brings has been the driving force behind its success so far this year.

Of course, that pressure and finding the balance between a defensive attack and fouling out of the game, returns us right back to the original point; maturity and experience.

This team has matured tenfold since its last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2011. It has had to.

There have been ups and downs and disappointments mixed with achievements in the Lavin-era of St. John's basketball, but over the course of these next two games, the Red Storm can truly see where they stand and what they're made of, metaphorically and literally, heading into Big East play.

This is going to be the year, but only after these next two games.

"We have to show maturity and better poise in the heat of competition than we did (on Sunday)," Lavin said. "We'll learn from this. "