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St. John's still looking to crack Top 25

Shamorie Ponds #2 of the St. John's Red

Shamorie Ponds #2 of the St. John's Red Storm directs the offense against the Sacred Heart Pioneers during an NCAA men's basketball game at Carnesecca Arena in Queens, New York on Saturday, Dec 22, 2018.  Credit: Steven Ryan

In the past four NCAA Tournament fields, the 10-team Big East has averaged six entries per season and it has produced two national championships, by Villanova in 2016 and 2018. It’s quite a track record for a conference that was remade by the breakaway from big-time football before the 2013-14 season. And yet the conference isn’t getting much respect nationally so far this season.

Conference play began on Saturday night with St. John’s (12-0) playing at Seton Hall (9-3) and Xavier (8-5) playing at DePaul (8-3). The Big East’s record against the ‘power five’ conferences thus far is 21-18. However it’s only nationally-ranked team is Marquette (11-2) at No. 18.

Other Big East members have been getting votes in the AP poll, but aren’t in the Top 25. St. John’s rates 28th based on points received in balloting, Villanova 30th and Seton Hall 33rd. There is a reasonable chance that the winner between the Red Storm and the Pirates will get a number when the poll comes out Monday.

 Major off-season losses put the Big East in this place where it has to prove itself. Of the top 25 scorers from the 2017-18 season, 16 did not return. Five players, all underclassmen, went in the last NBA Draft and many of the teams were senior-laden a year ago. Seton Hall alone lost four starters. Creighton lost three.

“The league definitely isn’t as strong as it was last year by any stretch of the imagination,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said during the Big East teleconference on Thursday. “It’s still a top four league, but because of the seniors and played we’ve had [there’s a perception]. The league is still as strong top to bottom but I think everybody would say it’s not as strong as the league was after all the seniors that left.”

Villanova, the conference favorite again, may have the Big East’s best non-conference win thus far in a defeat of Florida State. Seton Hall probably has the second best in a win over Kentucky.

“I’ve been really pleased with the progression we’ve made since the beginning of the season,” Willard said. “For such a young group to buy into what we’re trying to do, play a pretty good schedule and be at 9-3? I’m really pleased with their attitude. I’m really pleased with their work ethic.”

St. John’s will have a crack at big non-conference win when it plays at Duke on Feb. 2.

As St. John’s coach Chris Mullin sees it, the Big East doesn’t really have ‘down’ years.

“I think the Big East will be as tough as ever, maybe a little different with a lot of veteran players who left for the NBA or graduated,” he said. “It’s going to be tough, top-to-bottom. Every night is going to be a very intense, competitive game and you have to bring you’re ‘A’ game every night.”

St. John’s was picked fourth in the preseason poll of Big East coaches because, while it lost a group of players at the end of the season to graduation and transfers, it has back three starters in preseason Player of the Year Shamorie Ponds, Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II. They’ve added Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron, a junior, and sophomore LJ Figueroa to the starting lineup. Their first two off the bench will be a pair of sophomore transfers: Mikey Dixon from Quinnipiac and Sedee Keita from South Carolina (who is expected to return from a knee procedure).

That experience is something Mullin likes and that a number of other Big East team’s don’t have right now.

“There’s a maturing level physically with having transfers,” Mullin said. “In our case, we’ve brought in players who were at great programs playing for some great coaches, so I believe that’s an advantage. Our transfers are a little more locked in, open-minded, and accountable for themselves.”

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