Digger Phelps would have loved Steve Lavin's take on St. John's 84-70 loss to Seton Hall Thursday night at the Prudential Center. Phelps often has espoused the theory that it's not good to go into postseason play on too long of a winning streak, and after winning eight of its previous nine, including four wins over ranked opponents, the Red Storm was as hot as any team in the country.
But St. John's (19-10, 11-6 Big East) ran into a team that was hotter for one night. Seton Hall (12-17, 6-11) shot 64.3 percent from the field (27-42) and 66.7 percent from three-point range (12 of 18). Jeremy Hazell stroked it for 31 points, and Fuquan Edwin added 19. That was enough to offset Dwight Hardy's 23-point game and the effect of 18 turnovers the St. John's defense forced. Had the Red Storm turned more of those turnovers into points, they made have been able to hold off the Pirates.
Instead, they took a loss that likely knocked them out of a double bye that goes to the top four teams in the Big East for the conference tournament. St. John's and Syracuse are tied for fourth, but the Orange holds the tiebreaker by virtue of its win in head-to-head competition. It's not likely Syracuse will lose its final game against 1-16 DePaul, so, a win over 3-14 South Florida probably won't move St. John's up.
Lavin described the Thursday-Saturday games this week as a perfect dry run for the NCAA Tournament, and that's even more true now because a loss doesn't end your season. It just shows St. John's how much better it has to play at this time of season because anyone could get as hot as the Pirates did tonight.
"There's a valuable takeaway," Lavin said. "It's a great wakeup call, like getting punched in the mouth. It's an ideal situation for a lesson learned. The dynamic is now different because we've had a degree of success, and teams are going to be gunning for you. We couldn't have had a more valuable lesson. If you don't bring it, you get your bell rung."
Asked if he saw any cause for concern because the Red Storm missed out on the double bye, Lavin shrugged and said, "Sure, there's always concern. It could be the start of a six-game losing streak." But that's obviously not what he's anticipating. Brightening, Lavin added, "It's by no means gloom and doom. We've risen to No. 15 [in the rankings] and we can finish 12-6 in the Big East and reverse last year's record."
The great irony in all this is that Seton Hall and Rutgers are locked in as the No. 12 and 13 seeds in the first round of the Big East tournament. The winner of their game plays the No. 5 seed, which now is St. John's based on the tiebreaker, in the second round at 2 p.m. Wednesday. So, one way or the other, St. John's will be facing a local rival on the Red Storm's home court at Madison Square Garden, and if it's the Pirates, there will be a little chance for payback.
The winner of that game would get Syracuse in the 2 p.m. game on Thursday and might even have a little advantage by playing the previous day if last year's tournament is an indication of how the double bye can work against a team. Oh, and Syracuse is the one remaining Big East team that St. John's nine seniors never have beaten. It should be interesting to see how much the Red Storm will benefit from the lesson administered by Seton Hall.