Are the Johnnies For Real? We’ll Find Out Soon Enough…Posted by rtmsf on January 4th, 2011
Last night’s St. John’s win over Georgetown in Madison Square Garden represents the high-water mark of the proud Red Storm program in the last ten years. It had been fifteen tries since the Johnnies last defeated a ranked team, and it might as well have been a hundred. It certainly seemed that long. The last time the Queens school was relevant in the national landscape, a herky-jerky forward named Ron Artest was better known for his stylin’ haircut than for thanking his psychiatrist after winning an NBA title and throwing haymakers into a Detroit crowd. Before that? A sweater-wearing coach who went by Louie stalked the sidelines as a parade of NYC-born and bred All-Americans passed through the hoops temple on 34th Street & 8th Avenue — players with the names Mullin, Berry, Jackson, Sealy.
Steve Lavin’s arrival last summer already gave the hordes of New Yorkers yearning for a quality program in the City a reason to get excited about college basketball again, but at a certain point anticipation morphed into reality as consecutive losses to questionable Atlantic 10 foes St. Bonaventure and Fordham tamped out much of that fire. After all, the Johnnies enjoyed the services of an experienced team in a post-adolescent’s landscape, but that same group of seniors had gone 44-53 (17-37 Big East) in their previous three seasons and were ignominiously labeled underachievers. Perhaps rightfully so. The Johnnies have for some time been that team on paper who looked dangerous, but analysts have learned to check themselves for even temporarily believing in them.
Now that the bandwagon is warming up and collecting tickets, will we all get burned again? This much we know to be true. The Big East is not the SEC, Pac-10 or even the ACC this year — it is a brutal and unrelenting league full of teams among its top three tiers (national contenders; conference contenders; legitimate NCAA teams) that can cause very good teams to hit tailspins involving several-game losing streaks in a hurry. If the schedule lays out in a certain way, top twenty teams can face two-, three-, or four-game losing skids and still be worthy of a ranking. Georgetown of two seasons ago and UConn last year are examples of solid teams who were brutalized and emasculated by the Big East schedule — either of those teams would have finished among the top four in the much-weaker SEC or Pac-10 those years. Yet Steve Lavin’s team has already navigated two road games in places that are not the easiest to come out with a win (West Virginia and Providence), and followed that up with a home nailbiter victory over another experienced team that specializes and thrives on winning those kinds of games (Georgetown).
St. John’s has seven games remaining in January, and this upcoming stretch will tell us whether Steve Lavin’s fun and athletic crew is a legitimate NCAA Tournament team or the same pretender from years past. Every single game will be against a team currently in the Top 25 — Notre Dame (home/away), Syracuse (home), Cincinnati (home), Louisville (away), Georgetown (away) and Duke (home). The Red Storm’s February/March games, however, will only include four Top 25 opponents (and six unranked teams). It doesn’t take a downtown I-banker to know that even a simple split (4-3 or 3-4) of the pending January stretch will position the Johnnies well in terms of schedule strength and quality wins to get back to the Big Dance for the first time in eleven years.
We’ll be honest: we’re rooting for these guys. We’re rooting for the collection of seniors who have played three-plus years with little but disappointment to show for it. We’re rooting for the slick-haired coach who was run out of Westwood on a rail for doing things for which many other schools would have erected statues of him. We’re rooting for the hoop denizens of New York City, who long for an era when MSG was rocking because the Redmen Storm played there, instead of becoming a proxy home for Syracuse, Connecticut and Duke when they amble through town. We’re rooting for the excitement of it all — the college game’s roots are in places like Chapel Hill, Lexington, Lawrence and Bloomington, but its pizazz and showmanship is on Broadway in the heart of the nation’s greatest city. College basketball is better when New York has a team to love and for fans around the country to hate — so c’mon St. John’s, in the names of all things Carnesecca, keep on keeping on.