March Madness: Is St. John's a Legit Contender?

Danny FlynnSenior Analyst IMarch 2, 2011

St. John's Swingman D.J. Kennedy
St. John's Swingman D.J. KennedyNick Laham/Getty Images

Living in the New York City area my entire life, I’ve always felt a longing inside my sports soul to find a local college basketball team that I could root for.

The only problem?

Pretty much every New York or New Jersey big time school has been borderline bad for about the last decade.

Sure, Seton Hall has had a few spurts every now and then; outside of that, however, there really hasn’t been much to get excited about.

Rutgers? Rider? Hofstra?

Like I said, not really much to get excited about.

What hurt the most was that the area’s true college basketball pillar, St. John’s, had at some point turned into one of the Big East’s least productive programs.

During the Norm Roberts era (2004 to 2010), the Red Storm went a combined 32-70 in Big East play and finished 81-101 overall, a win percentage of just 44 percent.

It was a far cry from the 2000 team that won the Big East tournament.

Many fans wondered where all the Chris Mullins and the Ron Artests of the world had vanished to.

What had happened to a once proud St. John’s team, a program that was at one time synonymous with college basketball in the New York area?

Had the good times left the Garden for good?

It seemed possible, but then suddenly the future of the Red Storm changed dramatically on one fateful day. It was March 30, to be exact, the day Steve Lavin was hired as the head coach of the St. John’s basketball program.

After learning the ins and outs of the sport as an analyst for ESPN, Lavin, who had previously led the UCLA Bruins to five Sweet 16s in seven years, came to Queens, New York with something to prove. He arrived with the intention of building St. John’s into a college basketball juggernaut.

Still, not even Lavin could have predicted this much early success for a team that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2002.

Throw in the fact that Lavin’s crew plays in the toughest conference in the country—the Big East—and has had to endure one of the most grueling schedule slates in the sport, and it only makes their success all the sweeter.

St. John’s is currently 19-9 on the season and ranked 15th in both polls. It’s not a soft ranking, either. Unlike some highly ranked Mountain West schools that will remain nameless for safety purposes, St. John’s has actually beaten their fair share of quality opponents.

Duke, Pitt, UConn, West Virginia, Georgetown, Notre Dame and Villanova have all fallen victim to the resurgent Red Storm.

This team, which seemed like barely a darkhorse to simply make the tournament at the beginning of the season, is now fighting for a top four seed.

What everyone wants to know now is this: are they actually for real?

In one of the most wide-open brackets we'll probably ever see, you have to wonder, just how much damage can this storm really do?

Well, let’s look at the facts.

St. John’s has two coaches in Lavin and assistant Gene Keady (a coaching legend from a long and successful tenure at Purdue) who have loads of tournament experience.

Plus, they have a starting lineup consisting entirely of senior players.

Any college basketball coach in America will tell you that experience is crucial when you get to the Big Dance.

When the clock starts ticking down and the pressure is making everybody in the arena sweat, you want guys out there who know what they’re doing and who can handle adversity.

It also helps when you have that one unheralded player. In St. John's case it is guard Dwight Hardy, who has the ability to come up with clutch performances at crucial times.

While we don’t know exactly what kind of momentum St. John’s will have going into the tournament, and we haven’t yet seen the type of opponents they’ll have to overcome in order to advance in the field, what we do know is that this team has a little magic.

And as we’ve seen year after year, a little magic can go a long way in the NCAA Tournament.

I won’t be so sure as to say St. John’s is going to win the whole thing this year, but I will make it clear that no team in America wants to have to deal with this Red Storm team in a one-game elimination setting.

Lavin’s team has the three T’s for success in the NCAA Tournament. They’re tough, tested and talented.

The most important T, however, stands for translate.

Can Lavin translate his team’s regular season success into a postseason dream run?

New York City and the rest of the college basketball world is waiting for the answer.