With one week left until the Big East tournament, there's a snowball named St. John's, and it's rolling downhill toward the postseason and gathering speed and substance with every revolution. It most likely will reach Madison Square Garden with a double bye for the conference shindig and then make the NCAA Tournament seeded high enough -- a fifth seed, maybe fourth if this continues -- to keep the momentum going.
The Red Storm rolled down I-95 on Saturday and steamrolled No. 14 Villanova, 81-68. Yes, St. John's lead shrank to a point with four minutes left, but it was up by 14 early, and when it got tight at the end, the Red Storm made the big buckets and knocked down the foul shots necessary to pull away again. Dwight Hardy's 34 points marked his third career-high in seven games, which was enough to prompt Wildcats coach Jay Wright to called him an "awesome player."
To which Wright later added, "St. John's is playing great right now, really, as well as anybody in the country."
The victory was St. John's sixth over a ranked team, which ties Texas for the most in the country, and it has road wins over Cincinnati and West Virginia, both of which have cracked the top 25 but simply weren't ranked when the Red Storm played them. It's heady stuff for a group of nine seniors who never fared better than 6-12 in the Big East and never sniffed an NCAA Tournament bid.
First-year coach Steve Lavin was asked if he ever saw anything like this in his seven seasons at UCLA. He mentioned how his first team stumbled early before winning 12 straight to win the Pac-10 and reach the Elite Eight. But UCLA was coming from a different place with 50 winning seasons in a row at a place that considered anything short of the Final Four a disappointment, as Lavin said.
St. John's has great tradition, but it hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2002, and these seniors are finally showing the belief and determination to go with the flashes of talent that have merely teased in the past. "This group, their entire careers have been spent in the lower half of the league," Lavin said. "That makes this a unique story in terms of the turnaround or the confidence this group is playing with."
You can see it growing game by game. They've won six straight and eight of the past nine games, knocking off the likes of defending national champion and current No. 1 Duke along with UConn, Pitt and Villanova, all ranked teams, in the process. If they were going to stumble down the stretch, the Wells Fargo Center was a likely spot for it against a Villanova team that figured to be desperate for a win after losing to Syracuse earlier in the week.
But when the Wildcats made a late run to cut the deficit to 65-64, the Red Storm fought back. "The first thing I mentioned to the team I was most proud of was exhibiting the ability to counterpunch," Lavin said. "On the road in the Big East against a well-coached team like Villanova, you know they're eventually going to make a run. You hope you have enough, when they make the run, to withstand it and then make a run of your own to salt the victory away.
"That's four out of five games where we've fallen behind or teams closed it, as Villanova did to one point, and we've gone on another run. Early in the season when St. Mary's made a run on us or Louisville or Notre Dame, we didn't have the ability to stop the bleeding and go on a run of our own."
Now the Red Storm has that ability in spades, and as for Hardy (pictured), he's so hot he's infra-red. "When I play like that, it gives my team confidence and we start playing together as a whole and it's a wonderful thing to watch," he said of his 34-point effort against Nova. "We've got the pieces to make this a whole, and we're just riding the wave right now and we ain't trying to crash."
So, how good is St. John's? The Red Storm isn't a Cinderella in the traditional sense of a George Mason or a Butler, a mid-major that made the Final Four and, in Butler's case, came one lucky bounce from winning it all.
But this St. John's team is on that kind of a roll. Sweet 16? Final Four even? Absolutely not out of the question.