If St. John’s had been able to squeeze past No. 9 Villanova Saturday at Wells Fargo Center, the Red Storm probably could have punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. But even after their 57-54 loss, Steve Lavin expressed confidence in his team’s ability to build a resume strong enough to meet the criteria used by the Selection Committee.
At this point, St. John’s (18-10, 8-7 Big East) has won nine of its past 11 games, including a win over then-No. 12 Creighton at Madison Square Garden. The only two losses in that stretch were on the road against ranked teams, Creighton and Villanova, and both came by just three points. And this turnaround has taken place after a 0-5 start in Big East play, making it all the more dramatic.
If the Red Storm wins home games in the coming week at the Garden against Xavier and DePaul, it would push their win total to 20 and assure them of a winning record in conference play. That also would make sure they avoid a first-round Big East tourney game between the bottom four teams in the 10-team standings, and then, one win in the quarterfinals would put them into the semis, which might be enough to earn the NCAA bid.
“If we take care of business coming down the home stretch by continuing to accumulate wins, then, we put ourselves in position to do something special come March,” Lavin said. “I like the way our team is playing.
“A winning record in league play is important, and then, to do well in the conference tournament can go a long way toward helping our cause. So much depends on what we do against Xavier, DePaul and Marquette [in the road finale]. If we get to 20 wins, that’s important. If you don’t stub your toe in the conference tournament that’s important. Then, you begin to get looked at.”
Lavin described his previous experience as an ESPN announcer going through the mock selection process with the committee. He said the “eye test” – how well a team is playing at the end of the season – is important. The rules say the games are weighted equally, but human nature being what it is, finishing the season strong is the best way for a team to sell itself as tournament-worthy.
“The eye test is something we probably have going for us,” Lavin said. “We’re accumulating wins and closing in on 20 at the right time of year, but also we’re playing in impressive fashion even in our losses. In the wins, we’ve been blowing teams out. There are a lot of double-figures wins.”
St. John’s didn’t play well offensively down the stretch against Villanova but kept it a close game with tough defense. The Red Storm did it with Chris Obekpa playing at less than full strength while coming back from an ankle injury and without 6-9 forward Orlando Sanchez, who missed the game to be with his wife after the birth of their first child. Sanchez will be back for Xavier on Tuesday at the Garden.
A couple more wins this week by the Red Storm would make the eye test clear for all to see.