NEWARK - Mid-February is the time of year when reality begins to set in for teams fighting to be on the bubble for admission to the NCAA Tournament. That's why the sense of urgency was very real for St. John's heading into its meeting with Big East Conference rival Seton Hall Thursday night at the Prudential Center.
The Red Storm (15-9, 5-6 Big East) went into the game riding a streak of six wins in seven games, including an upset of then-No. 12 Creighton on Sunday.
"We're getting ready for one of the hottest teams in college basketball right now," Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said.
Willard was upset with his own Pirates (13-11, 4-7), whose home loss to Marquette on Tuesday put their tournament hopes on the verge of extinction. "It's not that they're not giving good effort," Willard said. "They're not understanding the opportunity."
The question teams in the newly reconfigured Big East are facing this season is just how much opportunity there will be to crack the 68-team NCAA field. The old Big East set a record with 11 bids in 2011 and routinely received eight.
But now the basketball-only schools have broken away, and they've had a tough time garnering votes in the national rankings. Villanova ranks sixth in the AP poll and USA Today Coaches Poll, while Creighton is 18th and 17th. No other Big East school even received a vote in either poll.
The most recent "Bracketology" released Thursday by ESPN expert Joe Lunardi had five Big East teams in the field, but Providence and Georgetown were two of the last four in, playing in First Four games for a No. 12 seed. Only Villanova (2 seed), Creighton (3) and Xavier (9) were solidly in the projected field.
"It's premature, but I'd be very surprised if at least five don't go," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. "But it all depends on how things fall out. The eye test is big as is challenging yourself."
Lavin was referring to the importance of playing well at the end of the season and strength of schedule. But Ron Wellman, chairman of the NCAA selection committee, said in a conference call with reporters this week, that games at the end of the season carry no more weight than early-season games.
Myriad factors, including RPI ratings and strength of schedule, go into determining the field. Seton Hall's Willard said he and Marquette coach Buzz Williams discussed what it would take for Big East teams before their game.
"I think it takes a team to get on a run like St. John's is doing," Willard said. "Georgetown, Marquette, someone has to differentiate themselves."
Going into the Seton Hall game, St. John's needed a 5-2 finish in its last seven games for a 20-11 overall record and 10-8 conference record. Just reaching .500 in the Big East likely isn't good enough, and Marquette's Williams said it might take 11-7 to qualify. If it comes down to strength of schedule, St. John's is ranked 32nd, which helps if the Red Storm gets the necessary wins down the stretch.