Perhaps St. John's can view its No. 1 seed in the NIT as a precursor of things to come. The Red Storm lost to top seed Virginia in the second round of the NIT last season. Now, the Cavaliers are the East Region's top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
St. John's (20-12) will have home court advantage throughout the NIT. It meets Robert Morris (21-13) Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Carnesecca Arena.
"My sense is the team is focused on getting ready for a game," Lavin said late Sunday in a conference call. "Naturally the goal this year was to play in the NCAA Tournament and we had aspirations to participate in March Madness. But this group has quickly turned its attention to playing in the NIT and we recognize it's a honor to be a No. 1 seed and to be able to play in front of our own fans in a postseason tournament that has special heritage and tradition when it comes to St. John's University."
Junior guard and leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison added, "It's disappointing of course to not be in the NCAA Tournament but we have to have short term memory. We're glad we got the No. 1 seed so that we can play at home and we're going to try and win out. It's all home games for us so that's a big advantage and we're looking forward to it . . . We still have basketball left. Our group is committed and we're going to play until we can't play anymore. We have a chance to play on our home court, so we're going to take advantage."
Lavin figured his team was a near miss for an NCAA berth.
"I don't know the particulars that went into building the NCAA Tournament field," he said, "but historically the one-seeds in the NIT represent the first four out in terms of the NCAA tournament field. Look at the other one-seeds, they were all right there was well. SMU, Florida State, ourselves and Minnesota. It's pretty evident that we're grouped with other teams that are considered to be right on the edge of making the NCAA Tournament."
The NIT really gets interesting for the Red Storm and Larry Brown-coached SMU if both teams can stay alive all the way to the Final Four at Madison Square Garden. Brown is a former Knicks coach and grew up on Long Island. Brown and St. John's coach Steve Lavin also had tenures at UCLA.
St. John's may have sealed its NCAA fate by losing to Providence in the quarterfinal round of the Big East Tournament.
"It's so difficult to know, with Xavier being in the play-in game what all the different factors were but obviously we're the one-seed in the NIT, then it was razor thin. We did some good things in terms of winning 11 of our last 14, finishing tied for third place in the Big East, winning our last three road games. We did some really good things coming down the stretch the past two months of the season and that positioned us to be in the mix for the NCAA Tournament and to a one-seed as it turns out in the NIT. So, I think the staff and the players have a similar view, which is we're disappointed we're not in the NCAA Tournament but we've turned our attention to the task at hand which is preparing for Robert Morris in the NIT. We consider it an honor and a privilege to be the No. 1 seed and play at home and participate in a postseason tournament that has so much tradition, particularly when it comes to St. John's."
St. John's has won six NIT championships, though the 2003 title was vacated because of NCAA violations. Robert Morris gained some national attention last season as it beat Kentucky, the defending NCAA champion, in a first-round NIT game in Moon, Pa., because Rupp Arena was not available.
"They beat Kentucky last year and won their league this year," Harrison said. "They're well coached and are going to be a tough team to play. We have to come ready to play. We'll be ready."
Robert Morris lost to Mount St. Mary's in the Northeast Conference title game, thereby missing the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. St. Mary's will play Albany, which beat Stony Brook for the America East title, in a First Four game for the right to face overall No. 1 seed Florida.
Robert Morris, seeded eighth in the NIT, is down to a roster of eight after the January suspension of four players for undisclosed reasons. Freshman forward Jeremiah Worthem (8.9 points, 4.1 rebounds) was the biggest loss. Karvel Anderson (19.1 ppg) and Lucky Jones (13.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg) are the top producers.
"We know they play a zone defense, they shoot the ball well from the three-point line, they get to the foul line more than their opponents and their zone defense is aggressive," Lavin said. "They have postseason experience. Anytime a team wins a conference championship it means they are playing a cohesive brand of basketball and they have a winning culture, a championship culture. So those make for dangerous opponents."