DURHAM, N.C. — St. John’s goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015 doesn’t have a bad look from a distance.
The Red Storm have a 16-5 record, an NCAA Evaluation Tool ranking of 44 and a win over No. 10-ranked Marquette — which seem like pretty good credentials.
Take a closer look, though, and the nicks and scratches become apparent. The Red Storm’s non-conference strength of schedule is among the 15 weakest in the country and there are a pair of bad home losses to DePaul and Georgetown.
St. John’s will have a chance to buff out those nicks and scratches when it faces No. 2 Duke (18-2) on Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. A victory over the Blue Devils before the Cameron Crazies would make the Red Storm a difficult team for the NCAA Tournament selection committee to shrug off if they finish the season respectably.
“Every win is a step towards [our goal]. But I guess, metrically, some games are more important,” St. John’s coach Chris Mullin said. “But it doesn’t really affect our mindset and the things we have to do to compete in this particular game.”
The Red Storm may be uniquely prepared for the task at hand. A year ago at Madison Square Garden, despite being mired in an 11-game losing streak, St. John’s beat then-No. 4 Duke behind Shamorie Ponds’ 33-point performance. St. John’s also is the last non-conference foe to beat the Blue Devils at Cameron. Since losing that game, 83-82, on Feb. 26, 2000, Duke has won 146 straight non-conference games on its home court.
The Blue Devils are a very different team from the one the Red Storm beat a year ago. Gone are Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr. and Grayson Allen, among others. The current Duke team features phenomenon Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish. Williamson and Barrett might go 1-2 in the next NBA Draft and Reddish could be one of the top five selections.
Even so, Mullin said, “The experience of playing against [Duke], it helps . . . It’s not so much a fear factor, it’s a respect factor.”
Williamson has been a problem for many and poses one for the Red Storm. To combat the 6-7, 285-pounder with the 45-inch vertical leap, Mullin might use 6-9 Sedee Keita, 6-6 Marvin Clark or 6-5 Mustapha Heron.
Asked if he is better defended with size or speed, Mullin said, “He has the unique ability to combat both . . . I’m not quite sure of the speed; because of his body, he holds off quicker defenders. And I don’t think length or bulk bothers him. Nothing really bothers him, and with his unique physicality and athleticism, I think his skills get overlooked. He’s a great passer and tremendous ballhandler, very unselfish player. He doesn’t shoot shots just to shoot. He takes good shots [or] passes to his teammates.”
St. John’s might not be at full strength. Starting guard Justin Simon was limited to seven minutes in Wednesday’s impressive win at Creighton because of migraine headaches. Mullin said he will be a game-time decision and that some players are battling a winter bug.