St. John's head coach Rick Pitino directs his players during...

St. John's head coach Rick Pitino directs his players during a game against Butler at Carnesecca Arena on Jan. 2. Credit: Errol Anderson

OMAHA, Neb. — Talk to any coach or player in the Big East and they will tell you that every conference game is a big one. It’s really not just lip service when a loss to a weak Big East team can blemish an NCAA Tournament resume and dent a team’s metric value.

This game that St. John’s (12-4, 4-1) plays here on Saturday against 22nd-ranked Creighton is a little bit more than just a big game. If the Red Storm win, it should be their gateway to the first appearance in the national rankings of the Rick Pitino era. And that would be a first real step to returning the program to the national spotlight.

Consider where St. John’s would stand with a win on Saturday at CHI Health Center: first place in one of the nation’s toughest conferences, on a five-game winning streak and trending better with most every game. And by virtually any perspective, worthy of a number next to its name.

It would be achieving the first of many goals that long-suffering St. John’s followers have desired: gaining a place in the national consciousness.

As road games go, CHI Health Center is among the toughest. The Blue Jays average 16,953 there, and thousands of opposing fans don’t buy tickets in Omaha the way they do in New York to see a game at the Garden.

Whether there is optimism about St. John’s in that setting depends on how one sees Wednesday night’s 75-73 win over Providence.

One might say the Red Storm were on course for a blowout win before poor decisions and a lack of toughness allowed the Friars to make it a game in the last two minutes. Others may point to a team capable of withstanding a charge and winning.

Pitino sounded like a member of the first camp after the game when he said “I’m [ticked] off with my guys right now. It’s OK, because you can get upset when you win and you learn a lot of lessons, but I have very high aspirations for them, very high goals for them. And I don’t want them to do [some] things they did tonight.

“I really believe this because I’ve been around this game a long time: If we would have won by 20 tonight, we would have gone into Creighton and just got our [butts] handed to us.”

While making an appearance in the Top 25 guarantees nothing about a season, one couldn’t blame St. John’s followers for seeing it differently. In each of the past 25 seasons in which St. John’s got a number next to its name, it finished the season in the NCAA Tournament. And that’s the dream in this first year under Pitino.

The Red Storm last were nationally ranked in 2018-19. After a week in which they had wins on campus against Marquette and on the road at Georgetown, they were 14-1 and came in at No. 24 on Jan. 7, 2019. It was St. John’s first Top 25 appearance in four seasons, but it didn’t last long. That week the Red Storm dropped a road game at Villanova and a home game to DePaul on campus and lost their number.

There were a couple of impressive wins the rest of the way that season. Despite losing five of its final seven games, St. John’s squeaked into the NCAA Tournament’s First Four before losing to Arizona State in Chris Mullin’s final game as head coach.

There was some national buzz about St. John’s after Pitino was hired, and it only grew as he added top transfers and blue-chippers Simeon Wilcher and Brady Dunlap. The Red Storm received votes in the preseason poll before their early-season stumbles. They started receiving votes again this week (18 points for 37th, if anyone is counting).

Saturday brings the chance to restore the buzz.


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