Steve Lavin has his white "Air Force 1" sneakers packed and ready to go; all he needs is for the selection committee to tell him where his Red Storm will be playing.
After three straight wins against conference foes Connecticut, Cincinnati and Marquette, St. John's has essentially punched its ticket to the Big Dance. Now the question is, how far can the Johnnies hope to advance?
Here's a look at SJU's strengths and weaknesses and what it all means for their chances in March.
The foremost of this St. John's team is that it is battle-tested. The Johnnies are 4-1 against Top 10 teams, which includes blowouts of then-No. 9 Notre Dame, No. 3 Duke and No. 10 Connecticut. Coming out of the Big East with a winning record and having one of the three toughest schedules of any team are both indications that the Red Storm could be poised to make a run deep into the tournament.
St. John's has been so successful due to a mix of experience and good coaching. Coach Lavin, in his first year with St. John's, has already earned his stripes. He has a roster that features nine seniors, none of which were his recruits, all buying into his coaching philosophy.
From top to bottom, this experienced group has displayed a commitment to the team concept. Look no further than senior forward D.J. Kennedy.
In 2009-10, his junior season, Kennedy led the Red Storm in just about every statistical category, including scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and minutes per game. Kennedy has gracefully accepted a lesser role this season, and the result has been a more well-rounded team.
This team concept resounds through the Storm's "matchup zone" defense. The way St. John's is able to pressure the ball and double-team with seemingly reckless abandon suggests a sense of trust. Each player is confident that his teammates will make the correct rotations depending on the situation.
With their ability to create steals and the emphasis on ball security on offense, St. John's is leading the Big East in turnover margin at plus-4.04 per game.
Finally, most successful teams in the tournament have at least one player who is playing at an incredibly high level. For St. John's, it's Dwight Hardy. Hardy was the Big East player of the week last week, and he has averaged nearly 28 PPG over the last four games.
When it comes to weaknesses, look no further than the Red Storm's recent trip to the West Coast to face UCLA. St. John's plays extremely aggressive defense, which is fine in the Big East, where the refs tend to avoid blowing the whistle anytime there is contact. It's not going to be all Big East referees in the NCAA Tournament though, so it is possible the Johnnies could find themselves in foul trouble.
In the aforementioned game against UCLA, which featured Pac-10 refs, St. John's attempted only seven free throws while UCLA went to the line 41 times!
The UCLA game also showed that despite their general speed and athleticism, St. John's is vulnerable to teams that feature a dominant big man. Freshman center Joshua Smith came off the bench for the Bruins and scored 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting, to go along with eight rebounds and three blocks.
The Johnnies were actually controlling this game until Smith entered, at which point the momentum shifted immediately and permanently to UCLA.
Another significant weakness is that St. John's relies on its defense to produce offense. After creating turnovers, the Red Storm is excellent at running the floor and scoring quick baskets. If another team manages to protect the ball, however, the Johnnies could have trouble putting up points.
St. John's has several players that are decent scorers and shooters, but no true threat to break down a defense. They are significantly less effective in their half-court offense as opposed to their transitional game.
Scoring the ball has actually been quite an issue at times for the Storm. In its win against Cincinnati Sunday afternoon, St. John's went nearly nine minutes without a field goal to close out the game. That is almost one quarter of a 40-minute college game without scoring the basketball.
With so much of the scoring responsibility placed on the shoulders of Hardy, one cold shooting night could spell an early exit.
Finally, since it will not be the NIT the Johnnies are competing in this year, they will be forced to leave the comfortable confines of Madison Square Garden. St. John's has used its home court advantage to help collect all those previously mentioned wins against ranked opponents. SJU has not been able to beat a ranked opponent on the road this year.
There are the pros and cons; weigh them however you see fit. Unfortunately, it will be a few more weeks before we can see how it all shakes out, but like always the excitement of March Madness will be well worth the wait.
Most St. John's fans will be happy just to have their team back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2002. This is a team that has shown it can go toe to toe with the very best and compete at a high level. For Lavin and the Storm, don't be surprised to see them in the Sweet 16 and possibly beyond.
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