Wednesday, February 16, 2011

St. John's Basketball: 5 Reasons Johnnies Ready to Storm Big Dance

Next month the NCAA selection committee will meet to determine which 68 teams will make up the field for March Madness and St. John's is ready to crash the party.

A huge victory over then-No. 10 UConn at the Garden and two tough road wins against good Cincinnati and Marquette teams in the past week have turned the Red Storm into an opponent no team may want to face in the Big Dance.

Just a couple of weeks ago, St. John's lost three games in a row and were precariously looking down at another NIT bid.  Fundamental mistakes, sloppy play and second-half collapses emptied the stands and turned the fans' chant of "We Are St. John's" into "Who Are These Guys?"

All that has changed in a big way for the Red Storm (16-9).  The Westminster Dog Show may have left the building but St. John's basketball is now the big dog in Madison Square Garden.

The Johnnies are 7-1 at their home arena.  Beginning with their MSG Holiday Tournament Championship and rolling over ranked teams Georgetown, Notre Dame, Duke and UConn, St. John's had flexed it's muscle at home and now they are taking their winning ways on the road.

The Red Storm are playing and winning in ideal tournament conditions:  top-notch competition, traveling, winning road games in short spans of time and playing under big crowds.

Here are five reasons the St. John's basketball team should be feared--did I actually say feared?--by teams in the NCAA tournament.

Road Wins-  For once the Red Storm can actually call themselves road warriors.  This week's two decisive wins in three days in the hostile confines of Cincy and Milwaukee are just a rehearsal for the Big Dance.  A 3,000-mile jaunt to Pauley Pavilion--a game that could have been won by St. John's--and the distraction of Steve Lavin's homecoming was nothing compared to the 6,000 flight up to Alaska where the Red Storm won the Great Alaska Shootout at the beginning of the season.  No team has more frequent-flier miles this season.

Free Throw and Three-Point Shooting-  Once the bane of the St. John's team, it is now one of it's most consistent strengths.  As a team, they are shooting nearly 72% from the line and making a third of their shots from over the arch.  This is a team that missed 22 treys in one game earlier in the season and looked the Washington Generals second team at times.

Dwight Hardy-  The 6'2" guard from the Bronx has been on fire.  Last year's sixth man is currently fifth in the Big East in scoring and lit up UConn for a career-high 33 points last week showing up fellow Bronxite, and McDonald's All-American Kemba Walker.  Hardy was named Big East Player of the Week for the second time.  The go-to guard makes almost 90% of his free throws.  Nice clutch player to have in the final minutes.  Hardy brings back memories of great New York City players and is adding to the legacy of St. John's guards in the tradition of Erick Barkley. 

Experienced Teammates-  The senior-laden team is filled with players that are interchangeable.  Sometimes it seems like no five players have been in the game at the same time.  There is Justin Burrell clogging the inside and D.J. Kennedy picking up the slack for Hardy.  Nine tournament-hungry seniors make up this tight-knit squad who have learned to hold on to a second half lead.

Battle-Tested-  No team in the nation has played a tougher schedule that the Red Storm.  Their S.O.S. hasn't bobbed over No. 3 in weeks.  Their RPI now stands at #17.  The Big East is potentially sending 10 or 11 teams to the Tournament and it seems like the Red Storm has faced them all.  St. John's has 4 wins over top-13 teams.  Their Big East schedule reads like the Sweet Sixteen weekend of the Tournament and the Johnnies are 8-5 against these teams.  Don't forget that the Big East Tournament is played at Madison Square Garden.

If that isn't enough, there is the coaching.  First year head coach Steve Lavin took over this an experienced but undisciplined bunch of players and molded them into a team stronger than Gene Keady's brow.  They are playing like a senior-dominated team should--unselfish and fundamentally sound.

Those set-backs against local rivals St. Bonaventure and Fordham in December?  Fugeddaboutit.  Remember the Miami Heat a few months ago?  Sometimes it takes time for a group to gel.

And speaking of gels. It looks like Lavin has eased of the hair retainer, slipped off his tie and resorted to wearing white sneakers while his team rolls. Liking the new casual coach.

The Red Storm are playing their best basketball at the right time.  Their last appearance in the NCAA's was in 2002.  These players don't need to be reminded about that fact, even though Lavin continues to use the tournament as a motivating carrot.

Lavin delivered a 'fire and brimstone" speech during the Marquette game to "put the light under their fanny."

"I just jumped them in that timeout.  'This is what will get you beat in the NCAA tournament when you come out lackadaisical against quality teams,'" he said.

The coach should know, he was there enough times when he was at UCLA.

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