St. John's lost to Gonzaga last night, 86–71, ending what had been a promising season in their very first NCAA Tournament game. Even now, just hours later, it's easy to appreciate what this year's team has accomplished — it's made St. John's basketball relevant again, it's regained a real home-court advantage at the Garden, it's set the stage for Steve Lavin to continue this resurgence in the years ahead — but it doesn't make last night's loss any less disappointing.
The problem with losing a key player so close to Tournament time is that not only does is weaken a team's roster, it also hurts them in the eyes of the selection committee. And so when D.J. Kennedy tore his ACL against Syracuse, a Red Storm team that once appeared headed for a No. 4 seed fell to a No. 6, and a matchup against surging Gonzaga, who are Tournament regulars and winners of nine straight games heading into last night's game. St. John's, of course, has toppled far better teams than Gonzaga this year — they beat two of this tournament's No. 1 seeds, after all — but last night, playing without Kennedy, Gonzaga used a 12–0 first-half run to jump out to a comfortable lead and would more or less cruise from there.
Among the ugly stats: Gonzaga outrebounded the Johnnies 43–20, shot 53.8 percent from the field, drained 9 of 15 threes, and dished out twenty assists. St. John's had cut the lead to eight early in the second half; two Gonzaga threes and roughly a minute later, the lead was up to fourteen. It wasn't supposed to end like this for St. John's — not quite this early anyway.
And now Lavin finds himself in a strange situation: This team has undoubtedly raised the profile of St. John's basketball, but this particular group included ten seniors. And so from a basketball standpoint, they'll have to start anew next year, with a mostly new cast of characters. Lavin, of course, has assembled an outstanding recruiting class, so the future remains bright. Still, he faces a huge turnover — even for a college team — not just in his starting five, but on his bench, as well.
Having said all that, there's no denying that St. John's has at least started to carve out a space in this city's sports scene. (Obviously, they once were a key part of it, but considering how low they'd fallen in recent years, that was no easy task.) This year's team, and those seniors especially, deserve a lot of credit for that. Now it's up to Lavin to continue that progress, next year and beyond.