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St. John's can make national statement at Georgetown Saturday

St. John’s, fresh off a win over Marquette that should strengthen its case for a spot in the top 25, prepares to play at Georgetown on Saturday in a nationally televised CBS game. Some of the players on Thursday talked about the St. John's-Georgetown rivarly and what they need to do to win. Credit: Newsday / Casey Musarra; Photo Credit: Steven Ryan

St. John’s long-awaited return to national relevance may be just one win away.

The Red Storm took a big step toward it this week when it pasted 16th-ranked Marquette at Carnesecca Arena on Tuesday. Now it gets to face rival Georgetown on the road and before a national TV audience on Saturday at 1 p.m. A victory on that stage would certainly put it in line for a spot in the top 25 national rankings.

However, St. John’s at Georgetown is not just a rivalry game. It has the rich history dating to when Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing – now the programs’ coaches – starred for two of the best teams in the land. And since then it has remained one of the most passionately waged contests, even when one or the other was in an off year.

After a game in 2013, St. John’s Amir Garrett tussled with the Hoyas’ Jabril Trawick in the handshake line. And on March 9, 2017, a second-year coach Mullin and then-Georgetown coach John Thompson III screamed at each other as benches started to empty after a flagrant foul.

“It was always a huge, heated rivalry . . . I’d say there’s a ‘healthy hatred’ there, but in a good way just from a competitive standpoint,” Mullin said Thursday after practice. “But there’s ultimate respect. Obviously Patrick and me, we go way, way back . . . there’s a long history but it’s more respect and the ultimate competition.”

And Mullin said that after watching the Hoyas (11-3, 1-0) win at Butler on Wednesday night – their fourth straight win – this battle of rising programs could look like it did in his day. “They’re courageous. They play aggressive. It’s much like Georgetown teams of the past,” he said. “It’s going to be a great game . . . We have to play better and better. It’s only going to get tougher.”

Capital One Arena (formerly Verizon Center) has been unkind to St. John’s (13-1, 1-1). The Red Storm hasn’t won there since 2003, a span of 13 straight defeats in the nation’s capital. Georgetown won last season in double overtime and many of the Storm players haven’t forgotten.

“It’s what our program has been. We’ve had some down years,” Marvin Clark II said of the losses. "Last year we came close, but close was not good enough. It takes an elite level of focus to play in this league on the road . . . and come home with a win.”

More generally of the Big East, he added “going back from the past couple years, we’ve got a lot of payback and a lot of things to dish out.”

Just as St. John’s is vastly improved this season, so are the Hoyas. Forward Jessie Govan remains one of the conference’s best frontcourt players and Ewing has brought in an excellent freshman class. James Akinjo and Mac McClung are the starting backcourt and average 14.0 points and 12.3, respectively.

South Carolina transfer Sedee Keita, a 6-9 forward who returned from a knee procedure to play nine minutes last game, could play an important rebounding role, Mullin said.

All five St. John’s starters are averaging at least 9.9 points, led by Shamorie Ponds’ 19.2 per game. Clark, though, has had a huge last seven games. In them he has averaged a team-best 17.3 points and shot 64 percent. Clark took extra shooting practice after games early in the season as he was mired in a shooting slump, but he said “everyone has helped me get into a rhythm and it’s starting to show . . . I’m at peace and these last games I am out there playing free.”

Dixon transferring. St. John’s announced Wednesday that Mikey Dixon will transfer. The redshirt sophomore, who transferred from Quinnipiac two seasons ago and had to sit out last year, was averaging 5.9 points in 17.4 minutes per game. He played only a total of eight minutes in the Storm’s two Big East contests. Freshman Greg Williams Jr. could see more minutes as a result . . . During Wednesday night’s Big East doubleheader on FoxSports1, Nate Taylor announced he will accept a scholarship to St. John’s. A 6-6 junior from Queens now playing for Waterbury (Conn.) Sacred Heart, he was also being recruited by UConn, Illinois, West Virginia and Penn State, among others.

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