St. John’s in for crucial week that could tell us a lot

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This purpose of this year was progress. Seeing that the plan was working. Proving this program, after two decades of inconsistency and wayward leadership, was finally on the right path.

It started poorly for St. John’s and Mike Anderson, with a 1-5 record in the Big East. Then came a month of terrific basketball, six straight wins and seven victories in eight games. A commanding upset of league powerhouse Villanova. NCAA Tournament talk arose. Buzz began to circulate. Local players Posh Alexander and Julian Champagnie were emerging as two of the best players in the conference.

But just as soon as hopes heightened, the Johnnies took massive steps backward. They blew a 15-point lead at Butler. They played their worst game of the Anderson era as an 11-point favorite in a loss to DePaul, the perennial bottom-feeder in the conference, and they failed to rebound in an ugly 23-point setback at Villanova.

Now comes the true litmus test of where this program stands. Can it get off the mat again, finish the year well and reach the NIT? Or will this recent poor stretch continue to mushroom?

It’s why this week is so important for St. John’s — not only for how we remember this season, but what it can tell us about the future.

St. John’s, 14-10 overall and 8-9 in the league, can finish with a winning conference mark, a top-five finish and a bye in the Big East Tournament for the first time in six years, giving it a chance to make a legitimate run next week at the Garden. It can show real progress and prove the culture is really different under Anderson, that winning is now expected and losing isn’t tolerated. Or we will remember the loss to DePaul as the beginning of this season’s end, a performance that sapped this team of its confidence.

Posh Alexander
Posh Alexander
Robert Sabo

The NCAA Tournament is a major longshot no matter what happens. The no-show loss at home to DePaul — the dreaded Quad 4 defeat — combined with a 2-6 record in Quad 1 games, made reaching the Dance less feasible. Two wins this week might get the Johnnies back in the conversation somewhat. At least two additional wins in the Big East Tournament will be needed to give them a legit shot at an at-large berth.

But that’s not why I believe this week is pivotal. It’s because of what it says about where the program is going. It’s about setting a standard. The core of this group should be back next year. A strong finish will only help recruiting and make it easier to land a much-needed big man on the transfer market. Perception in recruiting is everything. It would set up big expectations next year when St. John’s should be a projected top-four team in the conference, barring major defections. 

It won’t be easy to win two games this week. Providence is playing better of late, winning three of its past four games, and big man Nate Watson will give undersized St. John’s fits. Seton Hall will need Saturday’s game for its NCAA Tournament hopes. Alexander, the Big East Freshman of the Year Frontrunner who was so key to that big streak, is a question mark. He suffered a sprained right thumb in the loss to Villanova and will be a game-time decision against the Friars, according to sources.

But St. John’s opened as a two-point favorite over Providence on Wednesday night and should be favored against Seton Hall on Saturday night as well. They are both winnable games at home. The Johnnies have to respond after eight days off. They need to get back to playing the kind of defense that keyed that winning streak, to move and share the ball like they were during all those victories, to attack at both ends of the floor. 

A big week would really show that next year could be a terrific season and give this program a lot to build on. A bad week would put a major damper on what was until recently looking like a quality campaign.

The NCAA Tournament might not be on the line for St. John’s, but that doesn’t mean the next two games are not very important. They will not only determine how this team is ultimately judged, but reveal where it is headed, too.

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