From the beginning of this season, first-year St. John's coach Steve Lavin said it was his goal to help the group of nine seniors he inherited finish their careers on a high note by reaching the NCAA tournament. That seemed a tall order for a group that hadn't finished better than 6-12 in Big East play.
But as St. John's (16-9, 8-5 Big East) prepares for its final regular-season game at Madison Square Garden against No. 4 Pittsburgh (24-2, 12-2) Saturday at noon, the Red Storm's players know they are close enough to an NCAA bid to taste it. They've already beaten four teams ranked in the top 25 when they played, and they won at West Virginia, which later cracked the top 25. What's more is that St. John's has a 4-3 road record in the Big East and can clinch at least a .500 conference record with just one win in their remaining five conference games.
Of course, if they upset Pitt after previously drilling No. 3 Duke, No. 9 Connecticut, No. 11 Notre Dame and No. 13 Georgetown at the Garden, you then would have to make the Red Storm a lock for an NCAA bid. No need to worry about the Red Storm looking ahead to the NCAA's prematurely when the game in front of them is the one that can put them over the top.
As Dwight Hardy said, "I want to win this game because they're in our conference, it will help the resume even more and they're the No. 4 team in the country…Right now, we're in a great position. I think it's in our hands now. We just have to finish out the year strong and we should be in the tournament with no problem."
Malik Boothe agreed with Hardy that St. John's is on the verge of clinching an NCAA bid, but since they've come this far, the Red Storm has set their sights on finishing higher in the Big East than middle of the pack. "I don't think we wanted to just finish .500," Boothe said. "We want to go out above .500. It's something the seniors have worked hard for."
In service that track the RPI ratings according to the NCAA formula, St. John's currently is 15th in the RPI with the No. 1 strength of schedule in the country. Lavin said the RPI can be misleading at times because of the weight given to road wins even against teams ranked from 100-200 in the RPI. But that shouldn't be a problem for St. John's because its strength of schedule is so high.
"To me, the most important thing is accumulating good wins and playing good basketball," Lavin said. "Strength of schedule and accumulating good wins are the two most important components. Have you challenged yourself, and who have you beaten? …We're glad RPI is another instrument used, but it's not as important as strength of schedule and [quality wins]. Winning games down the stretch is going to be important for us to enhance the odds of being in the NCAA Tournament."