If St. John’s is to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015, it will have to do it the hard way.
The Red Storm went into Saturday’s Big East game against Providence at Madison Square Garden looking at an expressway to The Big Dance: five home dates along with three away games against teams in the conference’s second tier. Senior Marvin Clark II even called their path “set up for us to succeed.”
Then the ball went up — and the Red Storm decided to go off-roading instead.
St. John’s played without second-leading scorer Mustapha Heron because of a right knee bruise suffered in Tuesday’s win at No. 10 Marquette, and the rest of the team failed to pick up the slack. The Red Storm got manhandled on the glass, ceded control of the pace and was an offensive disaster in the final six minutes of a 70-56 loss before 16,268.
Providence (14-10, 4-7) entered play eighth among 10 Big East teams in NET ranking. In losing to the Friars, St. John’s (17-7, 5-6) again tarnished the sheen from a strong accomplishment, having won recent road games against Marquette and Creighton. After the Red Storm rose to a No. 24 national ranking in January, they lost respectably at No. 14 Villanova before melting down at home against a DePaul squad that is last in the Big East in the NET rankings.
St. John’s tournament resume still includes some good wins: two over Marquette and one each over Creighton and VCU. But it also has bad losses to three of the four weakest teams in the conference, if a Garden loss to Georgetown on Jan. 27 is included.
“There’s no doubt that we’re not hurting anybody but ourselves,” Clark said. He added that the Red Storm have “to string something together or we’re going to be just another talented St. John’s team” that missed the tournament.
Red Storm coach Chris Mullin said there is no timetable for when Heron — who is averaging 15.0 points — will return. Though he conceded that Heron is “one of our best players, [so] of course it has an impact,” Mullin thought Providence’s 43-23 rebounding edge, which included 16 offensive rebounds for 19 second-chance points, was too much to overcome.
Mullin said the first part of the Red Storm’s game plan was to “meet their physicality” and the second part was to get their high-octane transition offense going. However, the Friars’ relentless rebounding pushed the plan off course.
“We weren’t horrible in the post or defensively, but when you get a stop and don’t get the ball back? It demoralizes [you],” he said. “They got 16 of those and some were after good defensive possessions. That was the first part of the game. We never got to the second part.”
Shamorie Ponds had 20 points and LJ Figueroa added 14 for St. John’s, but Clark and Justin Simon had a combined 10 points and 4-for-14 shooting, and 6-9 Sedee Keita, who started for Heron, didn’t manage a rebound in 20 minutes.
Nate Watson scored 18 points and Isaiah Jackson had 12 for the Friars.
Providence pulled away from a 43-43 game with a 10-2 run fueled by three St. John’s turnovers. Figueroa scored a layup off an inbounds play to keep the Red Storm within 57-50 with 5:56 left. Then St. John’s missed its next eight shots — three by Ponds and two by Clark — as the Friars pulled away. Figueroa’s driving dunk with 26 seconds left ended the drought and was the last score of the contest.