St. John's falls in Big East tourney but still looks ticketed for Big Dance
More than 12 minutes into Thursday’s Big East quarterfinal against Providence, when St. John’s guard Rysheed Jordan rolled on his back and writhed in pain below the basket, the outlook was already growing dimmer for the Red Storm. Jumper after jumper had clanked off the rim or missed it entirely, and the Johnnies trailed by 15 points—on what would normally be their home court, Madison Square Garden—in their first game since a 37-point drubbing by Villanova last weekend. To lose Jordan, an emerging scorer who clutched his right wrist while sporting a close-eyed, mouth-wide grimace, for any serious amount of time would not only add injury to insult but strike a great blow to the postseason prospects of a team eyeing its first NCAA tournament berth in four years.
First, the good news: After a visit to the locker room, Jordan returned to the game with his wrist wrapped in white tape, the joint apparently functional enough for him to finish with a team-high 18 points. The bad? The sophomore's Willis Reed Lite routine was not nearly enough to reverse the Red Storm’s fortunes in an uninspired 74-57 loss to the Friars, capping a discouraging week of flat play at the most inopportune time.
“Our aggressiveness was not at the level it’s been when we had success this year,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said after the game, sounding resigned. “[Providence] beat us to the punch, not only on the boards but on some 50-50 balls, and really established the tone early.”
[daily_cut.college basketball]While two games could be argued as the minimum threshold for a funk, barely past what could otherwise be written off as a blip, St. John’s has spent this winter establishing itself as one of the country’s most mercurial teams. Just a week ago, the Red Storm were rolling, having won seven of their last eight games to reside safely beyond most bracketologists’ bubble talk. Then St. John's met the Villanova buzzsaw last Saturday—without center Chris Obekpa and top reserve guard Jamal Branch due to respective ankle and groin injuries—and came out with a 105-68 loss, the program’s worst in 13 years, as the Wildcats piled up 40 points in the paint and grabbed a whopping 41.9% of available offensive rebounds.
Paired with Thursday’s lifeless loss, the sudden reversal of course recalls a time just two months ago when the Red Storm's season seemed to be on the verge of slipping away altogether. Just before the calendar turned to 2015, St. John’s was one of the country’s rising teams, ranked in the top 15 in the polls after gobbling up cupcakes to the tune of an 11-1 start. Then came Big East play and a veering off the rails. Jordan took what was announced as an indefinite leave of absence for personal reasons and returned three days later, the team explaining that his grandmother had died. The Johnnies lost their first three conference games and seven of 10 overall (including their turn as fodder for Mike Krzyzewski's 1,000th career win), triggering speculation that after just a single one-and-done NCAA tourney appearance in four seasons, Lavin’s job might be in jeopardy.
As February froze New York, Lavin’s seat cooled and his team heated up. Sir’Dominic Pointer emerged as one of the Big East’s best all-around players, averaging 18.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.6 blocks. Jordan and D’Angelo Harrison stepped up as outside shooters, with the former demonstrating the scoring prowess that carried over into two 20-point games to begin March. The Red Storm were closing in on a return to the top 25 and looking the part of a team that could win a game or two amid the madness.
After the Villanova loss, Thursday should have presented the perfect get-right game. Providence is a quality, tourney-bound team in its own right, but St. John’s had already decisively beaten the Friars twice during the regular season. Obekpa and Branch were both healthy, back in the lineup and in the familiar confines of Madison Square Garden, in front of a favorably partisan crowd. But the Johnnies, perhaps wary of Providence’s interior size, opened up the game with a barrage of jumpers, at one point missing 15 field goals in a row after making their first two. A 7-0 start gave way to an 18-0 Friars run and a game-long stranglehold in which three of their players—Kris Dunn, LeDontae Henton, and Ben Bentil—finished with double-doubles. Providence dominated the boards, grabbing 43.9% of what was available on the offensive glass and 70.5% on the defensive end. Aside from a brief second-half outburst that cut the deficit to eight points, Lavin said, “We were never really in contention.”
The last remnants of Lavin’s highly touted first recruiting class—Pointer, Harrison and Greene—ended their Big East careers without winning a single conference tournament game. (Asked about this, Lavin fueled his doubters’ fire by recalling his similar struggles while at UCLA and remarking, “I’m a poor conference tournament coach.”) But with regular season sweeps of Providence and Xavier and wins over Georgetown and Syracuse, those seniors are expected to accomplish a different first by receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament this Sunday. Not that they are taking that for granted, at least publicly.
“We’ll see Sunday what happens,” said Branch, when asked whether the disappointment of Thursday’s loss was tempered by their likely tourney berth. “But good thing [Thursday’s loss] happened today rather than if we made the tournament and it happened in the tournament.”
It still could. This is an unpredictable Red Storm team, one that has ripped off a pair of hot streaks and has now twice found itself suddenly cold. "I thought we were tentative—you know, tentative, hesitant," Lavin said of Thursday’s game. "There's a lid on the rim, but sometimes that comes from the nerves of the postseason."
If there are nerves in a Big East quarterfinal at home, they will not be eased by what St. John’s is hoping awaits next week. But with the bigger stage comes the bigger opportunity for the Johnnies—to show how good a team they are, and to make the latest ‘down’ a prelude to a much more memorable ‘up.’