Nobody was rooting harder for 15th-ranked Notre Dame to upset #2 Pittsburgh on Monday night the the St. John's University's men's basketball team. The players gathered in the home locker room Monday night, watching the Fighting Irish beat the Panthers and increase the Red Storm's own chances of getting an NCAA Tournament berth this year.
Although the 10 senior Red Storm players were encouraged by the upset, they still know it's a long and hard road to getting the school's first NCAA bid since 2002 and Saturday's disappointing loss to Cincinnati was a shocking reminder how tough life is in the Big East.
St. John's (11-7, 4-4) is smack dab in the middle of the Big East schedule and still hanging around. The senior-laden team is hungry to make their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament and the goal is realistically in sight. They have waited four years for this opportunity.
The Big East conference is arguably the toughest in the nation and the Johnnies have a chance to make a huge statement against #21 Georgetown (14-5, 3-4) tonight. St. John's is currently in ninth place in the 16-team conference.
The Red Storm have the 24th-ranked RPI in the nation and have quality wins against Georgetown, Notre Dame and West Viginia in their noisy arena. If St. John's can finish in the top half of the Big East, chances are they will receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Most mock tournament brackets currently have the Red Storm bubbling in.
It's all a big IF. The Storm came out of the Big East gate on fire. The team won their first three conference games then dropped four of five--including the disaster against the Bearcats. There are still 12 games to go and their tight-rope chances sway with every resulting game.
Upcoming, the Red Storm face ranked conference teams Connecticut, Cincinnati, Pitt and solid teams like Marquette as well as stubborn ones like Jersey rivals Rutgers and Seton Hall. Throw in non-conference foes like Duke and UCLA and the stretch-run looks harder than Gene Keady's stare.
The RPI boost from Notre Dame's upset win over Pitt is nice, but shooting 12-of-26 from the line against Cincy is beyond bad, it's horrific. The poor free-throw shooting cost them a crucial win against a ranked opponent. You get to the tournament by winning, not watching other teams get the 'W'.
It is only January and the Red Storm have to worry about 'must win' games. If the team plans a second half surge, they have to get down to basics--making free throws and less turnovers. These guys are seniors, they should know.
Lavin knows how to get teams into the Big Dance. He took six of the seven teams he coached at UCLA to the NCAA's, including five to the Sweet 16 and another to the round of 8.
Lavin has acknowledged all the talk about bracketologies, RPI's and all the other factors swirling around his team; variables which get a team into the NCAA Tournament. The head coach, after spending six years at a broadcast table until this season, is taking it one game at a time.
"We have eleven single-game seasons," said Lavin. "Everyone wants to participate in the NCAA Tournament, but understanding how to get there is the important part."
Everyone is talking about next year's Red Storm recruiting class and how great a job Lavin did. The coach can only play the hand he was dealt but the glory days start now.