St. John's likes its Big East, NCAA chances

NEW YORK -- Two days before a virtual NCAA tournament play-in game against Providence, St. John’s went two steps further, with talk of taking the decision out of the selection committee’s hands.

A win over the Friars will probably be enough to secure an at-large invitation. But the Red Storm are aiming for three wins in three days, a Big East championship, and the accompanying automatic bid.

“That’s where our minds at right now, 'cause we feel like we can win the whole thing,” said forward JaKarr Sampson.

“That was one of our goals from the beginning of the season, to win the Big East tournament,” said guard D'Angelo Harrison.

“We definitely feel that we can be the last team standing,” said swingman Sir'Dominic Pointer.

It’s a confident bunch -- and rightfully so, after winning 11 of 14 to end the regular season, capped off by a dramatic double-overtime win at Marquette on Saturday. But it’s also a group well aware of where it stands -- precariously perched on the NCAA tournament bubble.

“This is one of them games where, I like to say, you either go be in the NIT or the NCAA,” Pointer said. “We’re tryin’ to get into the NCAA.”

St. John’s and Providence have identical records -- 20-11 overall, 10-8 in the Big East -- and they split their two regular-season meetings. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently projects the Red Storm and Friars as the third and fourth teams on the outside looking in, respectively, and predicts the winner of Thursday afternoon's quarterfinal will probably sneak into the field of 68.

But St. John’s coach Steve Lavin says he does not view this as an NCAA play-in game.

“Our tunnel vision is on [just] winning the next game, as it has been for two months,” Lavin said. “One step at a time -- that’s how you dig yourself out of a hole.”

There’s no question the Red Storm have come a long way since their 0-5 start in conference play. Loss No. 5 was an 84-83 double-OT defeat at the hands of Providence at Carnesecca Arena on Jan. 16.

Some teams would have folded after that kind of demoralizing start, but this St. John’s squad did not -- and Harrison, its leading scorer, gave Lavin the credit Tuesday.

“Coach stressed, ‘Stay locked in, stay with it, it’s not over, we’re gonna be fine,’” Harrison said. “Honestly, we didn’t see it -- we were like, come on Coach, we’re 0-5. But he kept stressing it, and after that day, we had another sense of urgency.”

Lavin said he leaned on his experience at his prior stop, UCLA -- particularly his 1999-2000 Bruins team, which was 4-8 in the Pac-10 before rallying to win its final six regular-season games and make the NCAA tournament.

That group -- which featured future NBA players Matt Barnes, Earl Watson, Jason Kapono, Dan Gadzuric and Jerome Moiso, in addition to current St. John’s assistant coach Rico Hines -- advanced all the way to the Sweet Sixteen before losing to Iowa State.

“Having navigated a season like that gave me an immediate reference point with this group,” Lavin said. “We talked about that, and what an opportunity -- to be able to author one of the great turnarounds in the history of St. John’s, and in this conference.”

The Red Storm have gone 11-3 since, including an 86-76 win at Providence on Feb. 4. Two of the losses down the stretch were a three-point defeat at No. 14 Creighton and another three-point defeat at No. 3 Villanova. The third was a 12-point loss to Xavier at Madison Square Garden two weeks ago, a game played shortly after three key St. John’s players -- Rysheed Jordan, Orlando Sanchez and Pointer -- learned of the deaths of loved ones.

“You could clearly see against Xavier the effect that that had on our team’s spirit,” Lavin said. “I felt it as a coach, and I wasn’t one of the people that actually lost a loved one, so I can only imagine being in their shoes.”

“I like where our team is now,” he added. “We definitely had a bump in the road because of those things that were outside of our control, we had no idea were gonna hit us. Those lightning bolts can sometimes make you stronger if you absorb them, and it brings you together as a team, and I think that’s what’s happened.”

It’s been an impressive comeback, regardless of what happens this week. Nevertheless, if St. John’s does not beat Providence on Thursday, it will almost certainly have fallen short of its primary goal -- a berth in the Big Dance.

A win Thursday might not even be enough. The Red Storm may have to win a semifinal game Friday as well, likely against top-seed Villanova. But Lavin and his players sound confident, regardless of all the bubble talk.

"I’ll be surprised if there aren’t five teams in the Big East in the NCAA tournament," Lavin said. "I feel we have a strong body of work, a strong résumé, but we still want to win games, accumulate victories, build the argument or the case in a more compelling way."

“We’ll take care of business,” Harrison said.

“This is our year I feel like,” Pointer said, “to get in the tournament and make some noise.”