Carmelo Anthony may have gotten New York City fans all gooey-eyed last week, but it is the St. John's men's basketball team, led by Dwight Hardy, which is the real feel-good story in Madison Square Garden. The Red Storm have an ongoing streak of five straight wins against ranked opponents at their home-away-from-home and took the show down the Jersey Turnpike to Philadelphia and did it again.
Today, St. John's (19-9, 11-5) took an early 14 point lead against #14 Villanova and held on to beat the Wildcats on their home court, 81-68.
The Johnnies have proved they are a force to be reckoned with at the Garden but now they have beaten a ranked team on the road. It's a sure thing other teams in the Big East have noticed the Red Storm's surging play and, with the upcoming conference tournament being played at the Garden, those teams have to be nervous.
Who would have thought first-year head coach Steve Lavin could have molded the St. John's squad into the beast it is today. The senior-filled squad plays tough defense, grabs loose balls and hangs in at crunch-time. It is the toughest team in the brutal Big East.
Struggling Villanova (21-8, 9-7) got close, 65-64 after a Justin Burrell faux-foul, but couldn't handle the Red Storm's frantic full-court press as St. John's scored 16 of the last 24 points to win.
Now that St. John's has overcome two common pitfalls of streaking teams---losing on the road and let-downs against weaker opponents (they routed bottom-dweller DePaul on Wed.)---they should have their sights set for the Big East Tournament in two weeks.
Lavin, who has Big East Coach of the Year written all over him, has pinned the label of go-to guy on Hardy over the past few weeks. Ever since Lavin removed his tie and started sporting white sneakers the team is 8-1 but it is Hardy that has Lavin and college basketball talking.
Lavin has publicly started lobbying for his senior guard as a candidate for Big East Player of the Year and he won't find many detractors.
The head coach has compared Hardy to "Astaire and Baryshnikov" for his play on the court and thinks he is the front-runner for the award.
"I think he's the runaway favorite," said Lavin. "I know I'm biased. I'm subjective. But no player has done more for a basketball team. He's had some remarkable games against the best teams in the country---Connecticut, Duke, at UCLA and Pitt. He's electrified and elevated our program. He's jumper-cabled our program."
Now, you can throw 'Nova into the pile of ranked victims his program has run down.
If Lavin continues to wear his white tennies and St. John's stays in fourth place and gets a first-round bye in The Big East tournament, 'Melo just might become a side-act in Madison Square Garden this spring.
And if the team goes deep in the NCAA tournament, Lavin might be looking at National Coach of the Year.