In one of the most lackluster NCAA men’s basketball seasons in recent memory, few teams have provided me with enough evidence to watch their games. However, the resurgence of New York basketball has been able to captivate my attention long enough to not throw in the towel on college basketball this year. Madison Square Garden has been rejuvenated from the dungeon of basketball to its historic state as the Mecca of basketball in under one season. Although the fact that the Knicks being .500 at the All-Star break has helped sell tickets at MSG, the resurgence of the St. John’s University Red Storm (17-9) has also played a large role.
Throughout the 1980s, St. John’s provided basketball entertainment with such greats as Ron Artest, Mark Jackson and Chris Mullin. The program is drenched in college basketball success, accumulating six NIT championships in an era before the NCAA Tournament came into existence. Despite an abysmal two decades of failure, the Johnnies are headed in the right direction in restoring the program to basketball dominance, as they have defeated No. 3 Duke, No. 10 UConn, No. 9 Georgetown, No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 4 Pitt in recent weeks. The dominant play of the No. 25 Johnnies has resulted in their first Top-25 ranking since the 1999-2000 season. In addition, St. John’s could earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.
In his first season as the Red Storm’s head coach, Steve Lavin, the former coach of UCLA for eight seasons, has convinced a senior-laden team to ascribe to the notions of selflessness and hard work. The ten seniors on the Red Storm have witnessed the resurgence of the program first-hand as the Johnnies were only able to beat one of eight Top 25 teams they faced their freshman year. Former coach Norm Roberts could muster only two winning seasons in six years with the program. This year, the Johnnies have already dethroned two likely number one seeds in Duke and Pitt and are showing no signs of letting up. The St. John’s team is not particularly talented and instead relies on gritty defense and transition baskets to stay in games with the top dogs of college basketball. The relentless full-court press that St. John’s implemented against Pitt allowed the Johnnies to squeak by in a 60-59 thriller.
Their scrappy style of play and ability to defend the low-post, an area where the Johnnies are traditionally weak, have translated into success at crucial moments this season. The 6’7″ Justin Brownlee was tasked with the arduous responsibility of defending Duke’s 6’11” Ryan Kelly and held him to just seven points. The ability of the Red Storm guards to double-down on the big men of Duke demonstrates that the team’s elite defense warrants enough credibility to play against the toughest competition in the NCAA.
Although St. John’s has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success this year, the Johnnies have lost a number of easy victories to low-caliber teams. Perhaps the most notable of the losses would be the 84-81 setback against Fordham in December. Fordham’s current record is 6-18, and it has not beaten one Top 25 team. Another knock on the Johnnies this season has been that they cannot win road games. Three of their five conference losses have come from away contests, which has critics asking questions about the feasibility of St. John’s making a run at a Big East championship title. They currently stand in fifth place in the conference, one of the strongest in all of college basketball.
Villanova, which has a 9-6 conference record, will be playing St. John’s on Saturday. The trip to the raucous Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia will present the Johnnies with their final challenge of the regular season. St. John’s will have to rely on its grit and experience to defeat a youthful but talented 21-7 Villanova team led by senior guard Corey Fischer.
The battle-hardened Johnnies have fared extremely well for playing the most difficult schedule in the country based on strength-of-schedule metrics. They played eight consecutive games against Top 25 opponents in which they managed to win three (Duke, Notre Dame and Georgetown). In all likelihood, the Johnnies should expect to capture that elusive NCAA Tournament bid this year. Nonetheless, this year is only the tip of the iceberg for Lavin’s quest to restore St. John’s to college basketball prominence. He has taken amazing steps in terms of recruiting, with St. John’s class ranked second. Lavin has scooped up six four-star recruits and one five-star center, Norvel Pelle, who is ranked as the nineteenth best player in his class. The signing of Pelle satisfies St. John’s need for a dominant “big man” and is vital to Lavin if he intends on chasing a Big East championship in the coming years. The restoration of St. John’s basketball has clearly come faster than expected, as Lavin has used this year’s hard-working and experienced team to sound the alarm of the arrival of the Red Storm in the Big East. The continued success of the Johnnies makes them a viable upset threat in the NCAA Tournament and should Lavin manage to excel in the tournament, UCLA is going to wish they had never fired him. Although St. John’s is a long way from producing the household names of Artest and Jackson, Lavin has taken some corrective measures to right the ship and will utilize the tri-state area to bolster upcoming recruiting classes and ensure that it’s not just Carmelo and Amar’e who keep the fans flocking to MSG.