Dwight Hardy #12 of the St.John's Red Storm in action...

Dwight Hardy #12 of the St.John's Red Storm in action against the DePaul Blue Demons. (Feb. 23, 2011) Credit: Jim McIsaac

In these golden days when all his work on the basketball court is coming together and he's sharing the joy ride of success with his St. John's teammates and coaching staff, Dwight Hardy happily deflects talk of his booming candidacy for Big East player of the year. He turns the conversation to team goals and the Red Storm's mission of going deep in the NCAA Tournament, maybe all the way to Houston for the Final Four.

But there is one little thing he'd like to get off his chest. It's about that game-winning basket he made nine days ago against Pitt - the "Baryshnikov move," as coach Steve Lavin called it - in which he danced along the baseline and appeared in one video replay to rest his heels a fraction over the end line before going up to score. Hardy will take credit for that one, thank you very much.

"I've seen it a million times, and I did not step out of bounds," Hardy said recently. "I was on my tippy toes. There's no way I could have made that shot flat-footed . . . When I heard people saying I was out of bounds, I just smirked. I know I wasn't out. It was a great shot. Some people don't want to give me credit, but it's all right. I don't need it as long as we got the win. That's all that matters."

So there. That basket was real, and so is the dream sequence Hardy has been living during St. John's 8-1 stretch run, which began when his 26 points fueled an upset of defending national champion Duke at Madison Square Garden. He's averaged 25.1 points per game in that span, topping 30 three times, each one a new career high culminating with the 34 he threw down in Saturday's win at No. 14 Villanova.

The Dwight stuff

Suddenly, the Red Storm (19-9, 11-5 Big East) is tied for third in the nation's toughest conference and potentially looking at a high seed in its first NCAA Tournament since 2002.

"I think the performance he's had over the past couple of months is as impressive as anybody in the country," Lavin said after the Villanova win. "Not only remarkable individual performances against the best competition in the country, but he's also elevated our entire program up the standings."

What has happened with Hardy on an individual level is a reflection of what has happened to St. John's as a team during its remarkable growth spurt in the first year under Lavin and his superb staff.

After averaging 39 points as a senior at John F. Kennedy High in the Bronx and leading Indian Hills (Iowa) CC for two years, Hardy spent his junior season at St. John's coming off the bench and averaging 10.5 points.

"It was tough, but you can't get down," Hardy said. "You just want to play as best you can when you get the opportunity. I showed that last year when I came off the bench and provided a great spark and got some key wins for us. You have to take what life gives you, and I'm happy I made this choice. As you see, it's paying off now."

Improving his game

Once Lavin's coaches were in place, they quickly identified Hardy as a potential breakout player and worked to convert him from a shooting guard to a point guard. OK, no one will confuse him with Jason Kidd as a distributor, but Hardy has the ball in his hands all the time and averages just over two turnovers per game.

Hardy credits assistant Rico Hines for developing his ballhandling, Lavin for his emphasis on defense and assistant Mike Dunlap for being tough on him. "Coach Dunlap stays hard on me, keeps pushing me," Hardy said. "He's a wonderful coach. It's a pleasure to have everyone on this coaching staff. I wish I could have more years with them."

Lavin came in calling Hardy the "best pure shooter" he's ever coached. Yet he got Hardy to stop taking bad threes, look to go to the basket more often and develop a mid-range game.

"His ability to read and react to situations unfolding on the floor is where he's elevated his play the most," Lavin said. "He's an example of a player that is blossoming on all fronts - leadership, decision-making, playmaking, confidence and courage as a crunch-time performer to take a game over."

Hardy thanked former coach Norm Roberts for giving him the chance to play for St. John's. And now that he's fulfilling fantasies for Red Storm fans, too, Hardy added, "I really want to thank coach Lavin for making me the player I am today. I'm very proud. I just don't want to let up. The team depends on me and I depend on them, and I want to keep this going."