Almost every Big East Conference enthusiast raised his/her eyebrows at Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino when he voted the St. John's basketball program No. 1 in his preseason rankings in late October. Now, take another look at that ranking and it doesn't seem so silly. Especially, after the visiting Red Storm (16-9, 8-5 Big East) easily defeated the Marquette Golden Eagles Tuesday night, 80-69, at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. The victory was the Red Storm's fifth in six games -- in that span, St. John's beat No. 5 Duke Blue Devils, Jan. 30, and the Connecticut Huskies (No 13 in the AP poll and No. 12 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll), Feb. 10.
In the last four contests, senior guard Dwight Hardy, who was named Big East Player Of The Week Monday for the second time this season, has averaged 27.75 points per game. Hardy has propelled the Johnnies to a tie for fifth place with the Villanova Wildcats in the Big East standings. As of Wednesday morning, in a power rankings scenario, there's no way you can honestly place 'Nova (20-6, 8-5), which had lost two straight before edging the Seton Hall Pirates Tuesday night, 60-57, above St. John's. What does that mean? It means that the Red Storm are a top 5 team in the nation's best conference.
Right now, the No. 4 Pittsburgh Panthers (20-3, 11-1) are the class of the Big East. No arguments there. The No. 8/7 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (21-4, 10-3) and No. 9 Georgetown Hoyas (20-5, 9-4) are next in the standings/rankings. (Personally, I'd swap the Hoyas and Fighting Irish in my personal Big East Power Rankings, but that's being picky.) The No. 16 Cardinals (19-6, 8-4) are getting healthy and can beat anyone with their potent 3-point shooting. However, when it comes to picking 'Nova or St. John's, I'm taking the streaking Red Storm -- sorry, Syracuse Orange and UConn, you're just not consistent enough to make my top 5 rankings right now.
What this also means is that St. John's will make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002 -- As of Monday, ESPN's Joe Lunardi had the Red Storm earning a No. 7 seed in the field of 68. Also, come next Monday afternoon the Red Storm should crack the Top 25 rankings for the first time since 2000! That's more than 11 seasons of no national attention for NYC's college basketball team. It's been a long wait.
How good is this St. John's squad? Well, thanks to the play of Hardy, who is quickly becoming a solid Big East Player Of The Year candidate, and teammate senior forward Justin Brownlee (12.6 ppg), the Red Storm have a solid one-two punch. (Brownlee is a very athletic, 6-foot-7 forward who's a versatile scorer). Add that seniors D.J. Kennedy (10.3 ppg and 5.6 rebounds per game) and Justin Burrell (6.5 ppg and 5.9 rpg) can also produce; and head coach Steve Lavin's full-court, presser defense can create a tough match-up for opponents. The Johnnies could be a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 sleeper.
However, nobody wants to jump the gun too much. There are a lot of "sleeper" teams this season in men's college basketball. Also, there's some glaring St. John's weaknesses that opposing teams can exploit -- The Red Storm's nine seniors sometimes play like a bunch of freshmen by making dumb decisions; and at times they play too fast for their own good.
But right now, St. John's fans can celebrate because your squad is currently a top 5 Big East member. You will see your team in the next top 25 polls -- if not, then the rankings lose all credibility -- and that's a good reason to be excited for March.
I see those eyebrows raising again.