St. John's one-and-done in Big East tourney

A once-promising St. John’s season may be over, five days before Selection Sunday.

The Red Storm were eliminated from the Big East tournament on the first full day of action Wednesday, losing their opening game to Villanova, 66-53.

St. John’s was in the NCAA tournament mix as late as the final week of February, but the Red Storm (16-15, 8-10) have lost five games in a row.

"Our goal is always to win the Big East championship and then win the tournament championship," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. "But you look back, and there's a reason we were picked 12th in the league."

St. John's was actually picked to finish 10th in the conference's preseason poll. But the Red Storm, despite their youth, were tied for third in the conference at 6-3, after finishing off January with five straight wins.

The schedule got tougher after that, but the Red Storm were still on the NCAA bubble after beating South Florida on Feb. 20. Things unraveled from there.

The losing streak began with a 63-47 defeat against Pittsburgh, here at the Garden on Feb. 24. But the real turning point came five days later, when Lavin announced he was suspending leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison (17.8 ppg) for the rest of the season for conduct detrimental to the team.

St. John's was already offensively challenged -- one of the worst teams in Division I in 3-point field goals per game, and free throw percentage. Losing Harrison, the fourth-leading scorer in the entire conference, was a crippling blow.

The game against Villanova on Wednesday was typical of the team's play without Harrison. The Red Storm played hard, and were a pain in the neck on the defensive end. But they just didn't have enough firepower on the other end, shooting 35.6 percent from the field (21-for-59) and 2-for-11 from beyond the arc (18.2 percent).

Freshman forward Jakarr Sampson, the only other player on the team averaging in double figures, scored 13 points, but shot just 5-for-18. Sampson didn't get the same looks without Harrison drawing defenders' attention.

"I felt like I had a lot of heat on me," Sampson said.

"They're not as explosive with him [not] on the floor," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "That's a big loss."

St. John's hung tough for a while -- the game was tied at the half, and the Red Storm were still within five with less than seven minutes remaining -- but down the stretch, they just couldn't keep up.

Villanova, which leads Division I in free throw attempts and makes per game, shot 19-for-23 from the foul line. St. John's was just 9-for-14.

"I think the physicality allowed them to get into the bonus and to get to the foul line and convert from there," Lavin said.

The NCAA tournament is clearly out of the question now. Next question: Will St. John's even garner an invitation to the NIT?

After the Red Storm's overtime loss to Marquette last weekend to end the regular season, Lavin said he'd be surprised if they don't get an NIT bid. But a team on a five-game losing streak, and without its top player available, isn't very attractive.

St. John's could also receive an invitation to the lesser-known CBI or CIT. But those tournaments get even less respect than the NIT.

In the bigger picture, St. John's has now been eliminated in its first game of the Big East tournament for the second year in a row. Lavin was hired to return St. John's to prominence and make the Red Storm a perennial NCAA tournament participant. But after a surprising at-large bid in his first season, St. John's has missed the Big Dance the past two years.

Nevertheless, Lavin continues to express confidence in the program.

"I'm bold on the future," Lavin said, "and the fact the whole team is coming back, the group of people, the character, the work ethic, their talent, and we're moving in the right direction."

But Sampson could bolt for the NBA -- he didn't commit to coming back next season after receiving the Big East Rookie of the Year award earlier this week, saying he wanted to weigh his options. Harrison could return -- or he could opt to turn pro as well, or transfer to another school.

In truth, the future of St. John's basketball is very much up in the air, five days before Selection Sunday.

Only one thing's for sure -- the Red Storm won't be dancing this year.