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St. John's has a tall order against streaking Xavier

St. John's guard Mustapha Heron shoots for a

St. John's guard Mustapha Heron shoots for a three-point basket over Villanova guard Phil Booth in the second half of a men's basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Two weeks ago, the final games of St. John’s regular-season schedule looked like a perfect path to ramp up for the Big East’s conference tournament. Suddenly it’s become 10 miles of bad road.

In addition to a March 3 road game at DePaul, the Red Storm plays home-and-home against Xavier, beginning with Thursday’s 6:30 contest at Carnesecca Arena. The Musketeers have won four straight — the last an upset of defending national champ Villanova — to move into a fourth-place tie, one game behind the Storm.

“They’re the hottest team in the conference, have won four,” St. John’s coach Chris Mullin said. “They’re probably the most athletic, most physical team [in the conference].”

St. John’s (20-8, 8-7) may not have second-leading scorer Mustapha Heron, who missed the weekend win over Seton Hall with right knee soreness, the second game in five that malady sidelined him. Mullin said Heron has not practiced since that game, but did not rule him out to play against Xavier (15-13, 7-8). He terms the 6-5 junior “day-to-day.”

Mullin said Heron, who averages 15.4 points, is being treated with rest, ice and compression.

St. John’s also has the issue that Xavier looks a lot like Providence and DePaul, two teams the Storm is 0-3 against this season. They have a lot of size — like 6-7 Naji Marshall and 6-9 Tyrique Jones underneath and 6-4 point guard Quentin Goodin — and likes to play a slow pace with a lot of halfcourt sets.

The Musketeers have limited foes to an average of 61.2 points in the win streak.

“If we’re playing fast, rebounding and getting out in transition, we’ll be fine,” senior Marvin Clark II said. “If it turns into a slow methodical game, like [two losses to] Providence or [one to] DePaul, we’ll have to see.”

“It’s how you’ll dictate the tempo of the game,” Mullin said. “That’s how it is every game...It’s who is going to put their imprint on the game.”

St. John’s is in a fine position to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 2015 and it can equal the 21-win total of its last two tournament teams [also in 2011]. Xavier, however, has won the teams’ last seven meetings.

“Regardless of what the records may say, Xavier figured it out,” Clark said. “They’ve strung some wins together. It’s not going to be an easy feat. Really no game this season has been an easy feat. We know what we are getting ourselves into, we know what to expect.”

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