St. John’s has plenty to feel good about heading into Thursday’s 3 p.m. Big East quarterfinal against Seton Hall at the Garden.
The Red Storm just handed the Pirates a fourth straight loss last weekend by overcoming an 18-0 deficit for a 10-point win with freshman phenom Posh Alexander sidelined by a right thumb sprain. Alexander on Wednesday was named the Big East Freshman of the Year and announced he feels better and "I am going to be able to play." And the team is well-positioned to make a deep run with a potential semifinal matchup against limping Villanova.
However the last time St. John’s (16-10) felt good, it was disastrous. It had won seven of eight to join the NCAA Tournament conversation, looked past a home game against last-place DePaul and got beaten. Now we will see if the fourth-seeded Storm learned the lesson and are not already thinking about reaching Saturday’s title game and rejoining the NCAA dialogue.
"It's a one-game season now. . . . we’re going to get the best version of Seton Hall, so we've got to be our best version as well," said St. John’s coach Mike Anderson, who was named Big East Coach of the Year Wednesday for getting a team picked ninth in the preseason to its best finish in 21 years. "We're not looking ahead. We learned those lessons, so hopefully we'll come in and leave everything on the floor. We were down 18-0 at our place. If that doesn’t get our attention, I don’t know what will."
"We’ve got the right mindset," Alexander said. "What we learned from the DePaul game is we can't judge a book [by] the cover and think we’re going to beat them because they [were] one of the worst teams in the league. . . . Seton Hall is going to come out and throw their best shot at us."
The fifth-seeded Pirates (13-12) were in the NCAA picture until this skid and are looking to get back into it with a deep run; their Sandro Mamukelashvili on Wednesday was picked to share Big East Player of the Year with Villanova’s duo of Collin Gillespie and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
Off a pair of wins without Alexander, in which multiple players made huge contributions, Anderson sees his team as playing its best.
"I said from the beginning ‘it’ll be the sum of all the parts’ and those parts are coming together," he said. "It’s like putting a puzzle together and now you can see it works. . . My teams always tend to get better as the season goes on and guys understand the roles and end up playing for each other."
And getting Alexander back now – even if he isn’t 100% - will be a lift for all the Storm.
"He’s the igniter. . . . That instinct and ability and the way we play uptempo basketball, it ignites guys," Anderson said. "He’s that guy who competes and plays at a high level and if you’re not doing the same thing, you stand out. . . . He plays to win and he’s the heart and soul of our team."
Alexander is averaging 11.1 points, 4.4 assists and a conference-leading 2.6 steals and, along with Big East leading scorer Julian Champagnie (19.9-point average), has done an excellent job leading this true St. John’s ensemble back from a 1-5 start in conference play.
Alexander is the fourth Storm player to earn Freshman of the Year and first since JaKarr Sampson in 2013 and he said his goals for this season were "to come in with Freshman of the Year and try to win the championship and be the best teammate I can be."
Anderson is the third Coach of the Year from St. John’s and first since Brian Mahoney in 1993. Lou Carnesecca was named top coach three times in the 1980s.
The Storm, Anderson said, "could have folded our tent" at 1-5, but instead "we knew we had the personnel to get to where we are now.
"I always say it's not what you start, it’s where you finish," he added. "I just don't think we're done yet."