For the past month, St. John's has been one of the hottest teams in college basketball. The Red Storm rose like a phoenix from the ashes of its 0-5 start in Big East play to win nine of its next 10 to climb into firm contention for an NCAA Tournament bid.
But momentum only is as good as your last game, and in this case, coach Steve Lavin’s team has come crashing back to earth with two straight losses – a three-point heartbreaker at No. 8 Villanova on Saturday and a decisive 65-53 pounding by Xavier Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
That leaves St. John’s at 18-11 overall and 8-8 in Big East play with two regular-season games left against DePaul Sunday at the Garden and then March 8 at Marquette. The Red Storm needs a sweep to reach 20 overall wins and to post a winning conference record, two goals that would add immeasurably to their NCAA resume.
It could be the pressure of climbing out of that 0-5 hole with little or no margin for error finally wore down the Red Storm. Not only that, but they were coming off what Lavin called a “disjointed” week.
Forward Orlando Sanchez missed the Villanova game to be with his wife in Providence, R.I. after the birth of a baby daughter, and freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan suffered the shock of the news that a close family member was killed in a shooting on Saturday in Philadelphia. Jordan stayed home for a Monday viewing before returning to campus that night, and he came off the bench against Xavier.
“Were we pressing a little bit?” Lavin asked. “Was the disjointed week a factor? We don’t know. But defense is something you still can bring.”
In that regard, St. John’s let the Musketeers dominate inside by a 38-22 margin for points in the paint. Reserve freshman forward Jalen Reynolds had a career game with 17 points and 16 rebounds, and center Matt Stainbrook had 13 points before fouling out. As Lavin noted, the failure on defense bled over into problems on offense because the Red Storm generates transition baskets with stops, rebounds and run-outs. But they had zero fast-break points.
Asked if it has been wearing to sustain such a long run of success, Lavin said, “The greatest challenge in sports is sustained effort night in and night out.” Harking back to a horrible loss on Jan. 4 at Georgetown that was the low point of the season, the coach added, “Since the first Georgetown game, this is the first time I felt we were out of sync, not tied together at either end of the floor.”
Lavin and his staff did the best they could to handle the personal issues faced by Jordan and Sanchez, but there was no getting around the disruptive effect at a critical stage of the season. It’s nobody’s fault. Things happen, and Lavin said Jordan was “navigating an emotional minefield.”
But the concern going forward has to be with the nature of the past two losses. Both Villanova and Xavier played magnificent defensive games that made D’Angelo Harrison work for every point and forced the Red Storm in general to settle for more jumpers instead of getting to the rim.
St. John’s shot 32.2 percent at Nova, where Harrison had a team-high 15 points but on 4-of-15 shooting. Xavier held the Red Storm to 36.7 percent shooting, and Harrison scored only four points on 1-of-11 shooting.
Not only did the Musketeers deprive St. John’s of the chance to run, but when they got into half-court defense, they packed inside to cut off room to pass and to drive. “We don’t want to dare anyone and give them an uncontested shot,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said after his team basically did just that. “But that’s how we play. We defend gaps.
“It’s tough to go one-on-one against us. We wanted to make sure it was tough for them to get [two-point baskets]. Harrison had an off night shooting, but I thought the looks he got were tough ones.”
Indeed they were, and you can believe DePaul, Marquette and whomever draws St. John’s in the first round of the Big East tournament were paying attention and will try to follow suit.