If there were any doubts about whether St. John’s belongs in the NCAA Tournament field — and the Red Storm had sown several — they should be gone after what transpired on Sunday.
The Red Storm came back from a 19-point deficit to beat defending national champion and then-No. 13 Villanova, 71-65, before a sellout crowd of 19,812 at Madison Square Garden.
It was a win that made a statement: St. John’s absolutely belongs in the field of 68.
The Red Storm (19-7 overall, 7-6 in the Big East) already had made a case by beating No. 11 Marquette twice and posting impressive wins at Creighton and against VCU. But for anyone thinking that the success against Marquette was merely about the Storm matching up well, beating Villanova showed that they’re capable of beating just about anyone.
And if St. John’s ends up a 20-win team with at least a .500 record in one of college basketball’s five best conferences? That’s exactly what the NCAA Tournament selection committee has to take into consideration.
Put in even simpler terms: St. John’s is a dangerous team no one wants to face.
Villanova coach Jay Wright said as much when he was asked if he sees the Red Storm as an NCAA Tournament team. His answer: “I do. I definitely do. We’ve played a lot of good teams this year that are going to be tournament teams. I compare them to the Marquettes, the Florida States, the Michigans . . . Kansas. They can play with any of those teams.”
The fact that St. John’s pulled off its biggest comeback win in nine seasons despite a rare off game by leading scorer Shamorie Ponds bolsters this argument. The junior guard had 11 points and shot 2-for-14, but the Red Storm showed that they are deep, talented and versatile enough to win anyway.
LJ Figueroa had 22 points, including three three-pointers in the second half — one for the Storm’s first lead and another to give them the lead for good.
Sure, there was reason to doubt St. John’s. It won its first 12 games, but it was against one of the 15 weakest schedules in the country. And even though the Storm beat Marquette at home, doubts festered when they lost at home to DePaul, Georgetown and Providence.
But even the popular measures for evaluating teams indicate that the Red Storm should get in. They are one of only 33 teams to receive a vote in the AP poll released Monday. Their NET ranking is 46. Their RPI is 50. Kenpom.com’s metrics rate them No. 50. As of right now, the prognosticators see St. John’s as a No. 9, 10 or 11 seed.
The Red Storm have five conference regular-season games left, including four against the bottom three teams in the Big East. The other is Saturday at the Garden against Seton Hall, with which it shares third place in the standings. That potentially is a significant game.
“We control our own destiny” is how senior Marvin Clark II put it before the Villanova game, and he is right. If St. John’s wins four or five more games, it could be looking at a very good seeding. If it makes a run in or wins the conference tournament, even more so.
Of course, at other points this season, the players declared that they had turned the corner and left the inconsistency behind. Sunday’s win lends Mustapha Heron’s words afterward a bit more credence.
“We’re not complacent. It’s good that we beat the defending national champions, but we still have the rest of Big East play,” he said. “Then we have a Big East Tournament. So getting to the NCAA Tournament comes] third on our list. We’re worried about Providence and then every game after that.”