St. John’s can do itself a huge favor by getting a victory when it faces last-place DePaul on Sunday in a Big East game at the Blue Demons’ shiny new Wintrust Arena in Chicago.
A win would assure the Red Storm (20-9, 8-8) of at least a .500 mark in conference play and would mean they have avoided the worst-case scenario.
St. John’s will conclude the regular season with two road games against teams that beat the Red Storm in Queens: DePaul (13-13, 5-10) and Xavier next Saturday. The worst-case scenario? That would be losing out, finishing 8-10 in the Big East and making a one-and-done appearance in the conference tournament.
That would dare the NCAA Tournament selection committee to either send the Red Storm to Dayton for an outbracket game or leave them out entirely.
When St. John’s beat Villanova on Feb. 17, it showed it belonged in the NCAA Tournament draw; it had that victory plus two wins against No. 10 Marquette. In the three games since, St. John’s bookended a solid win over Seton Hall with losses at Providence and to Xavier at home on Thursday night.
The Red Storm have lost to DePaul and Xavier at Carnesecca Arena, though there were notable absences. Leading scorer Shamorie Ponds was sidelined by a back injury for the loss to the Blue Demons and second-leading scorer Mustapha Heron missed Thursday’s loss with right knee tendinitis. Heron has missed three of the last six games with the issue and coach Chris Mullin said he remains “day-to-day.”
St. John’s still has won the right games to reach the NCAA Tournament, but a bad finish could make for an angst-ridden Selection Sunday.
Many of the news outlets that prognosticate the NCAA field have the Red Storm edging back toward the bubble. ESPN, for example, had St. John’s as a No. 11 seed Friday.
The Red Storm have some things in their favor, though. They have followed their last four Big East losses with wins. They have shown they can win conference games on the road at Marquette, Creighton and Georgetown. St. John’s has won its last two games at the Garden, which will host the Big East Tournament.
DePaul, meanwhile, is in the midst of a four-game losing streak and is 2-4 in conference home games.
“I am not worried at all,” Mullin said Thursday about the remaining schedule. “Prepare and go play.”
A win in either or both of the next two games could show that the Red Storm have figured out how to deal with the bigger teams that have caused them so much trouble. No one in the Storm’s first string stands taller than 6-7 and the team is by far the worst in the conference in rebounding margin.
Providence is mired near the bottom of the standings but beat the Red Storm twice with its inside play. That also was the recipe DePaul used to shock St. John’s, 79-71, on Jan. 12 and that Xavier used Thursday.
“We know what we have to do, we just have to do it,” Mullin said Thursday after the loss. “Front the post, bump cutters. That’s the physical part of the game and then we can get to the skill part. We know what we have to do to win a game like this and it’s not what happened tonight.”
The Red Storm will get another chance Sunday. If they win, it would help remove any doubts.