St. John's Amir Garrett drives to the basket during a...

St. John's Amir Garrett drives to the basket during a game against UNC Asheville. (Dec. 21, 2012) Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

The 67-51 beatdown St. John's received from Georgetown on Jan. 12 at Madison Square Garden was far worse than the score indicated. It was a rude "welcome to the Big East" moment in which the Hoyas disabused Steve Lavin's highly touted young recruits of any notions they were ready to compete with the big boys.

As sophomore transfer guard Jamal Branch described the experience Friday, "We were the lunch meat, and they were pretty hungry coming off a ."

Sophomore forward Amir Garrett added: "They beat us pretty bad. It left a sour taste. We all kept that bottled up inside."

If that loss was life lesson No. 1 in the Big East, the Red Storm (14-7, 6-3 Big East) has proven to be a quick study, winning five straight since then and now are a much different team heading into a rematch with the Hoyas (15-4, 5-3) on Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center in Washington (4 p.m., Ch. 2).

Only the first win against Notre Dame in that stretch came against a team in the top half of the league, but it's vital for St. John's to beat the teams it should as it did in two wins over DePaul and one each over Seton Hall and Rutgers. The growth has been unmistakable, especially the emergence of Sir'Dominic Pointer as the team's defensive stopper and freshman Jakarr Sampson as a reliable offensive complement to leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison.

"We're playing better basketball than we were when we last played Georgetown," Lavin said. "There's been a resilient spirit. When teams would make runs, we countered with runs of our own. That's a good trait."

How much progress has St. John's made, and can the Red Storm make a run at an NCAA bid with a strong performance over the next four-game stretch against upper-echelon teams Georgetown, Syracuse, Connecticut and Louisville? The answers to those questions begin to take shape Saturday.

Harrison was smothered by a Georgetown defense that held him to seven points last time, and St. John's must find ways to contain versatile Hoyas scorers Otto Porter and Markel Starks. Branch is bound to face Starks, and Porter might see a combination of Pointer and Sampson.

"We're looking forward to finding out where we are," Lavin said. "I want kids who look forward to playing a tough stretch. That's how you build a culture."

Harrison said the Big East's best probably still doubts St. John's, but he added, "We're going to come ready to fight."