The NCAA Tournament begins in earnest tomorrow, and this year’s bracket includes three area schools: two from the city proper, and one located just across the river in Jersey City. Today, we conclude our look at these three local teams — sorry, Princeton, UConn, and Syracuse: You’re too far away for purposes of these previews — with a snapshot of the St. John’s Red Storm, the No. 6 seed in the Southeast region.
How They Got Here: Regular observers of college hoops already know the growing Legend of Steve Lavin, but in a nutshell: St. John’s last made the NCAA Tournament back in 2002 — a season that literally has an asterisk next to it in the team’s media guide, since some games from that season were vacated by the NCAA. Last year, in Norm Roberts’s final season as coach, the Johnnies won a respectable seventeen games and lost in the first round of the NIT. But the program’s resurgence under Lavin this season has been dramatic: They’ve won 21 games so far, including a slew of games against elite teams (more on those in a second). They’re ranked for the first time in a decade — they’re eighteenth in the latest AP poll — and earned a bye into the second round of the Big East Tournament, where they beat Rutgers before falling to Syracuse a day later.
Key Wins: This is how a team gets the attention of a city: In chronological order, they defeated Georgetown, Notre Dame, Duke, UConn, Pittsburgh, and Villanova this season. That’s six wins over ranked teams, including five at the Garden and two against schools that would earn No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
Who to Watch: Leading scorer Dwight Hardy had a standout senior season and upped his game in a few of those key wins: After scoring a career-best 33 points against UConn, he hit a game-winning reverse layup to knock off Pitt, then raised his career high to 34 points in the win at Villanova. Justin Brownlee — the man responsible for the wild, controversial final seconds against Rutgers — finished the season second on this senior-laden team in both points and rebounds. But just as notable is who won’t be playing: D.J. Kennedy, one of the team’s emotional leaders — not to mention a senior who averaged a team best 5.6 boards per game — will miss the postseason with a torn ACL, suffered last week against Syracuse. #DOITFORDJ, indeed.
Tournament History: They’ve made 27 appearances in the tournament (26 if you don’t count the 2002 appearance), reaching the finals in 1952 and the semifinals in 1985. Their last deep run came in 1999, when in his first year as head coach, Mike Jarvis led them to the regional finals. (They’d lose by three to Ohio State in the last game Ron Artest would play before leaving early for the pros.)
Who They’ll Play: No. 11 seed Gonzaga, at the Pepsi Center in Denver, at 9:45 tomorrow night.