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St. John's must finish season playing at their best

With an NCAA Tournament bid in balance, picking up wins is most important.

St. John's guard Justin Simon, guard Mustapha Heron,

St. John's guard Justin Simon, guard Mustapha Heron, forward Marvin Clark II and guard Shamorie Ponds react against Villanova in the first half at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — St. John’s has its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2015 within its grasp as it heads into the homestretch of the season and it has done it despite playing up to or down to its competition. No. 11 Marquette and No. 17 Villanova are the Big East elite and the Red Storm went 3-1 against them. Six teams entering play Wednesday were under .500 in conference play and the Storm was just 5-4 facing those.

St. John’s can play. But the goal in the final weeks of the regular season has to be mental consistency. The Storm players recognize that they cannot only play their best when the competition level is highest. And that had to begin on Wednesday night when St. John’s faced Providence looking for payback after its Feb. 9 loss to the Friars at the Garden.

“It’s all mental,” guard Mustapha Heron said. “It’s all within our locker room. Every night you have to play like you’re playing against the best.”

Asked why the Storm has been inconsistent in its approach to these games, Heron replied, “Everybody gets up naturally — its human nature to get up for somebody who’s got recognition and who people are overlooking you for them. It’s just natural for anybody.”

Maybe that’s a byproduct of the team’s 12-0 start, showing up and expecting to win. Because it surely isn’t coming from last season’s 16-17 finish or the 14-19 finish the season before.

St. John’s has bad home losses to DePaul, Providence and Georgetown. Now on the correct side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, it can’t afford to plant any more seeds of doubt as to its worthiness.

However if St. John’s finishes strong — and four of its last five opponents sit in the bottom half of the standings — it could really improve its tournament seeding.

“Now we have to go into a mindset for every game that we’re playing somebody ranked,” Heron said. “I think that goes for finishing the regular season and beyond: Thinking that everybody’s ranked and that we have to just go out and take care of business.”

Defense is the common thread in St. John’s better performances. In the two wins against Marquette and the one last Sunday against Villanova, they held their foe to 42-percent shooting or less and 31 percent or less on three-pointers. In the early part of the season, the Storm was able to get away with relying on its considerable offense to just outscore the opposition. “Throughout the course of the season you understand that when the competition gets better you’ve got to defend,” Heron said. “That’s what we’ve been doing lately.”

Heron conceded that St. John’s has sometimes been guilty of expecting to win and, as a result, hasn’t played its best. But he explained that the Storm is committed to doing what it takes to finish strong.

“[We’ll be] locking in as if we’re playing against a Marquette or a Villanova every night — no matter who it is,” he said. “[We’ll be] paying attention to the scouts [scouting reports] in the same way and communicating on the floor in the same type of manner.”

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