It has been a season of near misses for St. John’s. This week the Red Storm gets one last chance to finally find the range and become the team they were expected to be at the dawn of the season.
St. John’s was tabbed to finish fourth in a preseason poll of Big East coaches as it returned all-conference first-teamer Julian Champagnie and co-Defensive Player of the Year Posh Alexander. Though Champagnie again earned a spot on the All-Big East first team and Alexander remained a defensive star, the Storm finished a disappointing seventh. St. John’s (16-14) was 8-11 in conference play and seven of their losses came by six points or fewer or in overtime.
And so the Storm goes into the Big East’s conference tournament at the Garden needing to win four games in four days and capture the championship on Saturday night if it is going to realize its NCAA Tournament dream. It plays a first-round game Wednesday at 7 p.m. against 10th-seeded DePaul (15-15) with the winner advancing to meet eighth-ranked and No. 2 seed Villanova on Thursday.
"It’s going to be a grind, honestly," Champagnie said. "We’ve lost some games that we wanted to win, should have won. We’ve even given away a couple. So we come in with a goal in mind – to win the tournament.
"We know so much is on the line, so we have no choice but to go out and play hard,"
The Storm split its two games with the Blue Demons, winning by five at home in early January and losing by five in Chicago on Feb. 27. In the latter contest, the Storm allowed a season-high 99 points and coach Mike Anderson – who always preaches defense first – called "disappointing."
"The first game is the most important because now it’s just survive and advance," Anderson said. "In that game [in Chicago] we were trying to win with offense; So now it’s a big game with 40 minutes of defense. They know it is the opportunity that you work [for] to get to postseason play."
Villanova was dominating St. John’s on Feb. 8 at the Garden before the Storm used defense to stage a comeback and get a shot to tie it in the final seconds before losing by six. If the Storm were to advance beyond Thursday – something they have not done since the championship season of 1999-2000 – 20th-ranked and No. 3 seed UConn and 11th-ranked and No. 1 seed Providence could await. The Huskies beat visiting St. John’s in overtime and won in Queens by three; The Friars beat the visiting Storm by 10 and won in Queens by four.
The conference tournament is going to be a relatively new experience for most of the Red Storm. Two years ago, the tournament was halted by the coronavirus pandemic in the middle of St. John’s quarterfinal with Creighton and last season’s tourney wasn’t open to the general public. This one will be the real deal, with the fans and the buzz.
Anderson was asked why he believes his squad is capable of winning four games in four days and replied "look over this season [and the missed opportunities – layups, free throws, stops when you’ve got to get one – that’s been the tale of this team. So there comes a time when it all comes together and this would be the perfect time.
"I’ve got four outfits. That's my mindset."
BIG EAST TOURNAMENT
At Madison Square Garden
No. 9 Butler vs. No. 8 Xavier, 4:30 p.m.
No. 10 DePaul vs. No. 7 St. John's, 7 p.m.
No. 11 Georgetown vs. No. 6 Seton Hall, 9:30 p.m.
All games on FS1