NEW YORK -- On the biggest sports weekend in this city’s history, St. John’s did the Big Apple proud.
A little more than 24 hours before the kickoff of Super Bowl XLVIII, the Red Storm notched their most impressive win of the season, blowing out Marquette 74-59.
Perhaps no one was more impressed than Marquette coach Buzz Williams, who made a rather bold declaration after the game, considering St. John’s is 3-6 in the Big East, tied for seventh place.
“St. John’s roster is the most talented in the league, and I don’t think any coach would disagree with that,” Williams said.
The Red Storm lost their first five Big East games but have been playing better recently. They’ve now won four of five, and the only loss was a heartbreaker at No. 20 Creighton earlier this week.
When asked for his opinion on what’s been the biggest difference for St. John’s of late, Williams wasn’t shy, either.
“I think [Jamal] Branch at the point, that’s probably what I would say,” Williams said. “I’ve known Jamal since he was a kid. He doesn’t have to shoot to impact the game.”
Branch has made a bigger impact of late, corresponding with increased minutes. He didn’t have a particularly noteworthy game Saturday (four points, two rebounds, one assist), but several of his teammates stood out. D'Angelo Harrison poured in 27 points, including a season-high six 3-pointers. Rysheed Jordan scored just two points but had a career-high seven assists. And Chris Obekpa had seven blocked shots, his most in a game since November.
Obekpa got just his seventh start, but second in a row, and had his second consecutive good game. He played with more energy than he did for most of January. Both Lavin and Obekpa’s teammates noted his improved play in practice this past week.
“We just need him to do that night in and night out, because he’s our rim protector, he’s the heart of our defense,” forward JaKarr Sampson said.
Williams’ proclamation aside, it’s hard to argue that St. John’s is not at least among the most talented teams in the conference. Six players were ranked among the ESPN 100 as high school seniors, and their collective athletic ability is obvious.
St. John’s has an elite scorer, a couple of very good passers, a phenomenal shot-blocker and several other guys who can finish on the break and go off on any given night. And several of them are seasoned veterans now, in their third year in the program.
Lavin said he has seen steady progress ever since halftime of the team’s blowout loss at Georgetown on Jan. 4, and he called his team “snake-bit, just in terms of the number of close losses.”
“The growth is just, you can see it,” Lavin added. “We hope it’s this year, if not it’s gonna be next year, the nucleus is gonna be back. So we’re moving in the right direction.”
But most St. John’s fans expected this year to mark St. John’s return to prominence -- and the NCAA tournament. That opportunity remains, but the Red Storm will have to go on a major run in the second half of conference play.
Williams, whose team is now 4-5 in the conference, one game ahead of St. John’s, predicted his Golden Eagles would probably need to go 7-2 and win a game in the Big East tournament to be in consideration for an at-large bid.
The St. John's players still believe it can be done. “I feel like everything is still there for us. I feel like the sky’s the limit,” Sampson said. “We still got a lot of games to play, we still got the [Big East] tournament. I feel like it’s still an opportunity.”
As they should. It’s only the first day of February. And if New York can get to host a Super Bowl, then truly anything can happen.