St. John's will take on Gonzaga

NEW YORK -- At exactly 6:37 p.m. on Sunday, sitting in a private room at Smith & Wollensky Steakhouse on 49th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan, 13 college basketball players finally saw their dream come true.

Their inclusion in this year's NCAA tournament was a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, the team had to wait until the very last of 32 game pairings was announced by CBS host Greg Gumbel to hear their school's name. But when "St. John's" finally appeared on the TV screen, it was official -- the Red Storm are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.

St. John's, a No. 6 seed in the Southeast Region, will play No. 11 seed Gonzaga on Thursday in Denver, Colo. Tip-off will be at approximately 9:45 p.m. ET.

"The anticipation, the buildup -- it was like a long drum roll," said forward Justin Burrell, one of nine seniors on this St. John's squad. "Finally to see our names, man, we all lost it -- excited, screaming, jumping around."

Burrell, fellow seniors Sean Evans and Dwight Hardy, and head coach Steve Lavin met with the media at the nearby New York Athletic Club about a half-hour after the Selection Show concluded.

"I think it was better than I dreamed up," said Evans. "Because you can't really picture how it's gonna feel and the reaction you're gonna get when they finally call your name and you find out where you're going and who you're playing."

"It was one of the best feelings I've had in my life," added Hardy. "We all had chills in our bodies waiting for our name to be called, and once it went across that screen, there was nothing but joy in the room."

"Today was a special day for our players," Lavin said. "As a coaching staff, to be able to watch up close the experience that our team has had, having the opportunity to participate in the upcoming NCAA tournament, was something I'll never forget."

But there was an element of sadness, amidst the celebration. Senior forward D.J. Kennedy -- the team's leading rebounder and third-leading scorer -- will not be able to participate in the Big Dance, after tearing the ACL in his right knee in the Big East tournament last week.

"The first person I looked at was D.J., because he's not gonna have the opportunity to play in this game, or any other game if we were to advance," Hardy said. "I just thank him for everything he did this year, and we got his back."

Kennedy appeared on screen during the St. John's celebration on TV (CBS had a camera at Smith & Wollensky), and he looked just as happy as the rest of his teammates.

"He's still a part of what we do with St. John's basketball. So I was really excited to see that he was lively and excited for us," Burrell said. "He's definitely our inspiration. We love him so much. We know it's unfortunate he can't play, but we know we have to come out and do it for him."

Evans -- Kennedy's roommate and very close friend -- was wearing a T-shirt at the steakhouse that he went to a store and had made earlier this week, after Kennedy's injury. It was a black shirt, with "Do It For D.J." on the front in red, and "I am my brother's keeper" on the back.

"It started on Twitter -- fans asking how they can do things for D.J.," Evans said. "They made up a slogan. I told them I would help them."

"I think D.J. Kennedy's experience was bittersweet [today]," Lavin said. "On the one hand, he's proud in knowing that our team wouldn't be in this position to do something special if it wasn't for his contributions to our efforts this season. And yet he's devastated with the realization that he's not going to be able to participate.

"I think it's a real bittersweet moment, and I think it will be until our journey is complete. But I think he's handled it with grace and class."

Kennedy's absence will surely serve as motivation as this team embarks on a new journey, a new season, which will begin in Denver on Thursday.

There will be a pep rally on campus at Carnesecca Arena on Monday at 3:30 p.m. The team will then fly west, to prepare for its first-round game.

"We're just very joyful," Hardy said, "and we just hope that we can make the best of our opportunity and go as far as we can go."

When Lavin was hired at St. John's last April, this was the mission -- to return St. John's to the NCAA tournament, and to national relevance. It has taken him less than a calendar year to accomplish both.

Lavin inherited an incredibly experienced team by today's college basketball standards -- nine seniors -- but a group that had never participated in March Madness. And he set just one goal at the beginning of the season -- to do just that.

Well, mission accomplished.

Let the Madness begin.

Kieran Darcy is a staff writer to ESPNNewYork.com.