A wild ride of a year culminates in a bid for the senior-laden St. John's Red Storm. A long and winding four-year stretch of "incremental progress" in the words of head coach Steve Lavin has earned the Johnnies a nine seed in the NCAA Tournament against San Diego State - and a chance to face Duke on Sunday.
Unfortunately, the journey will have to continue without the suspended Chris Obekpa. Obekpa, the shot-blocking center and the team's main rotation big man, will be suspended for two weeks because of a violation of team rules.
The San Diego State Aztecs (26-8), led by coach Steve Fisher and wing Winston Shepard, who Steve Lavin recruited, are very long and athletic, but will be one of the worst scoring teams in the tournament. Not only do they miss shots from the field and not draw fouls, they shoot 63% as a team on free throws. That defense, though... it's good enough to earn them 26 wins, so ignore them at your peril. And they rebound very well on the offensive glass, one of the top 50 teams in terms of size.
BONUS: Dwayne Polee, former St. John's wing, is back on the court after some health scares as an impact senior for the Aztecs.
Both Duke and Gonzaga - opponents St. John's played well but lost to this year - are in the region as 1- and 2-seeds.
It's been a long and winding road for Steve Lavin's class of seniors, but their patience and hard work is being rewarded tonight. The St. John's Red Storm last made the NCAA Tournament since Steve Lavin's first year in 2011, with another senior-laden team.
The year started out with so many questions - could the St. John's Red Storm improve on last year's results with the loss of most of their frontcourt? Could the team recover from the eligibility concerns of the newcomers?
The Red Storm finished the season 21-11, 10-8 in the Big East - fifth in the highly-competitive ten-team conference. A hot start that led to a #15 national ranking, but the Red Storm faltered, struggling with defense and depth and Rysheed Jordan's temporary departure.
But with a quartet of scorers who average over 10 points per game and the defense of Chris Obekpa, the Johnnies did enough to earn an at-large bid.
But late-season victories over Xavier, Providence and Georgetown, along with the strength of the Big East, likely solidified the Red Storm's chances at the end of February.
Did Obekpa's absence change St. John's seeding? Likely not, as the Selection Committee finishes its work early on Sunday, with only time for small tweaks and contingencies (for example, if Connecticut had won their conference tournament).
The Red Storm will need to depend on the size of Amar Alibegovic and Joey De La Rosa, two energetic forwards who do not yet provide much in terms of scoring or rebounding.
Steve Lavin is slated to be on SB Nation's livestreamed coverage tonight - which we will link to in our other posts this evening.