The 2011 Big East Men’s Basketball Championship begins on Mar. 8 in Madison Square Garden in New York City. The championship game will be played on Mar. 12 at 9 p.m. The fifth-seeded St. John’s Red Storm have earned a bye and will play their first game on Mar. 9 against the Seton Hall/Rutgers winner.
The Red Storm have been all over college basketball headlines this season. Led by their new head coach Steve Lavin, they finished the regular season with a 12-6 Big East record, putting them in a tie with Syracuse and Louisville for third in the conference, and 20-10 overall. Both of these are their best records going into the Big East tournament in a decade.
Lavin has begun a new era in St. John’s basketball. After his last head coaching gig in UCLA ended in 2003, he joined ESPN as a college basketball analyst and color commentator. St. John’s made him an offer after last season finished with a first-round NIT exit and a 6-12 Big East record and his head coaching career was reborn.
After being the No. 13 seed in the Big East tournament last season, Lavin coached the Johnnies to a first-round bye this year after many substantial victories. The Red Storm lost two bad games early in the season to St. Bonaventure (16-13) and Fordham (7-21). They were 4-5 through the first half of their conference games, but put together a nice run in late January and February and won eight of their last nine conference games. In their conference, they were able to defeat high-ranked opponents such as West Virginia, UConn, Pittsburgh and Villanova, and split with Georgetown, Notre Dame and Cincinnati. They also defeated a third-ranked Duke team back on Jan. 30.
St. John’s comes into the tournament ranked No. 17 in the AP Top 25. The Red Storm are one of nine Big East teams currently ranked by the AP and sit behind Pittsburgh (No. 3), Notre Dame (No. 4), Syracuse (No. 11) and Louisville (No. 14).
The Red Storm feature All-Big East first-teamer and Big East Most Improved Player Dwight Hardy. The senior guard leads St. John’s with 17.9 points per game this season, good for fourth in the Big East. Another senior, forward Justin Burrell, also received a Big East award, winning Sixth Man of the Year by averaging 6.6 points and 5.0 rebounds per game off the bench.
One thing the Johnnies have to their advantage in the tournament is the home court. St. John’s plays many of its home games at Madison Square Garden and could draw a very large hometown crowd. This could play a big factor in a tournament run.
Although they were recently defeated by Seton Hall, the Johnnies should not have a problem getting past their first game. If they win, they go on to face Syracuse, who defeated the Red Storm earlier this season 76-59.
St. John’s clearly has upset ability in it, but Syracuse will not be an easy task for the Red Storm. The Orange went through a bit of a slump in late January and early February, but won the last five games of their season, including wins over Villanova and Georgetown. With Syracuse getting hot and having a few extra days to rest, the Orange are going to be tough for anyone to beat, let alone St John’s. Again, the Red Storm have upset some big opponents this year, and it could always happen again.
If they find a way to take down the Orange, their path to a Big East championship does not get any easier. They would likely face top-seeded Pittsburgh, but would also have the chance of playing Georgetown or UConn if either team can make a run. After that, barring any upsets, they would likely have to defeat Louisville and/or Notre Dame. Even as a ranked team, St. John’s winning the Big East title would be a Cinderella story, but it could lead to a higher AP ranking and the momentum necessary for an NCAA tournament run.
Unless something crazy occurs, St. John’s will be in the NCAA tournament even without a Big East title. Where they stand, they would likely enter the tournament as a No. 4 seed, but could possibly fall as low as a No. 7 should they have an early exit in the Big East tournament.