The possibility that St. John’s will return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015 became very real in the past 10 days. The Red Storm fared well though their toughest stretch of the season, going 2-1 with a pair of Big East wins in road games against Creighton, No. 2 Duke and No. 10 Marquette. Now St. John’s enters a final stretch in which it can solidify things.
St. John’s (17-6, 5-5) has a very favorable-looking schedule the rest of the way with five of the last eight games at home and road contests against three second-tier Big East opponents. It begins with Saturday’s noon matchup against Providence (13-10, 3-7) at Madison Square Garden.
“It definitely feels like the stretch ahead is designed for us to have success,” senior Marvin Clark II said. “I don’t know anybody that wouldn’t take that schedule. But it’s definitely . . . something to look forward to. What player, especially me being a senior, doesn’t want to have this back-end stretch with more home games than road [games]? It’s definitely set up for us to succeed.”
It’s been a middling season for the Big East with only two teams — 10th-ranked Marquette and No. 14 Villanova — providing chances for high-profile wins. St. John’s has prevailed in two of its three chances, beating Marquette twice, and now has a NET ranking of No. 39 nationally. The Red Storm will meet defending national champion Villanova a week from Sunday at the Garden.
Asked if he feels his team is set up for a big stretch, coach Chris Mullin said, “I think if we do that, we’ll set ourselves up for a better stretch run.”
Providence’s huge front line of 6-7 Alpha Diallo (17.3-point average), 6-6 A.J. Reeves (11.4) and 6-10 Nate Watson (10.4) will dwarf the Red Storm, so the key is for them not to become their own worst enemy.
“We’ve had instances — like for instance when we got [nationally] ranked [on Jan. 7] — we kind of got, I guess, relaxed,” Clark said. “We were cool with being ranked No. 24 and [lost]. It’s definitely no time to relax . . . We need to win out. That’s our goal: win out and set ourselves up to make this tournament run and possibly get a great seeding.”
St. John’s strong offense was its cornerstone early on, but in Big East play, as Mullin said, “any game that we have won, we’ve played good defense. That has been a constant.”
Sedee Keita, the 6-9 South Carolina transfer, underscored that point in a late January players-only meeting. With help from a member of the video crew, he was able to show his teammates the difference between what it looked like when the Red Storm played badly versus when they played well.
“I thought it was something we needed to look at,” he said.
“People only get to see the good things — the culture we live in is highlights, highlights, highlights — instead of seeing what it really is,” Clark said. “It was just a great chance to see both sides, good basketball and bad. It’s being able to see yourself and say, ‘I’ve got to make a change.’ ”
Notes & quotes: Mullin said Bryan Trimble Jr., sidelined against Marquette by a thumb injury, will play Saturday.