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St. John's could get into NCAA Tourney with win Sunday

St. John's forward Marvin Clark II (13) takes

St. John's forward Marvin Clark II (13) takes a shot over Villanova guard Phil Booth (5) on Jan. 8, 2019, in Villanova, Pa.  Credit: AP/Laurence Kesterson

St. John’s may be looking at a “win-and-in” situation Sunday at the Garden.

The Red Storm will face 13th-ranked Villanova in the 5 p.m. contest, and a win should be enough — barring a complete collapse — to get back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. Only two Big East teams — the Wildcats and No. 10 Marquette — have emerged as elite, and St. John’s would have three wins in four games against those two.

Even though St. John’s has been maddeningly inconsistent and suffered some bad home losses, posting a 3-1 mark against Villanova and the Golden Eagles would make it difficult for the NCAA Tournament selection committee to pass on the Red Storm.

“This game in particular, we look at it as if we take care of our business and leave with a win, we feel like we’re putting on our dancing shoes,” senior Marvin Clark II said. “That’s the mentality we’re taking to it and that’s the way we have to approach all of these last six games.”

Clark has sheared the highly stylized hair and beard he had been sporting. He called the makeover “a business decision” and added, “It’s time to get down to it.”

St. John’s (18-7, 6-6 Big East) is in a third-place tie with Seton Hall and had a NET ranking of 49 going into Saturday’s games. The Red Storm played Villanova (20-5, 11-1) evenly for 35 minutes on the road Jan. 8 before the defending national champion made all the big plays in the final five minutes of a 76-71 decision. The Red Storm defeated the Wildcats in Philadelphia a year ago, 79-75.

“We’re up for this game,” junior Mustapha Heron said. “We’re up for every game, but especially this one. Just know it’s a get-back game. They beat us at their place, so we want to defend our home turf .  .  . With the season they’re having, it would definitely help our tournament chances and our seeding.”

Clark said, “I think — and it’s not a secret — that we’re far more talented. But what I think showed last game is that they have that championship mentality and championship culture. Never once did they get weary, even when we were making shots early and got a great lead. They kept at it and their two seniors [Phil Booth and Eric Paschall] led them to a win. That’s where we have to get better: finishing games.”

The Red Storm has dissected the last five minutes of that loss to the Wildcats. Clark lamented Villanova’s late offensive rebounds that extended possessions and “were demoralizing.” Heron was disappointed that he was limited to eight points in 24 minutes by foul trouble and said, “That’s something I should be able to do better with.”

“They’re very conscientious about it,” coach Chris Mullin said of learning from their mistakes. “We’ll have to play this game possession by possession.”

Clark played his first two seasons at Michigan State before transferring and reached the 2015 Final Four with the Spartans. He said the feeling at St. John’s this February rivals what he felt with State that February.

“It feels very similar,” he said. “We control our own destiny. It’s up to us to make or break our season.”

CORRECTION: A previous version noted St. John's beat Villanova 79-75 at the Garden. The location of the game was incorrect. 


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