Can the Johnnies recapture the magic?

NEW YORK -- It's hard to put too much credence in St. John's 66-56 win over Georgia in Wednesday's SEC/Big East Invitational. The rebuilding Bulldogs are very much a work in progress under first-year coach Mark Fox.

But there is no arguing the Red Storm are better. They have better players -- and that's without Anthony Mason Jr., who has yet to return from an injury -- and they just play better. St. John's broke open a flat-out ugly game in the second half, upping the tempo on offense and containing Georgia's best player, Trey Thompkins, who had only four of his 19 points in the second half. Most impressive, St. John's shared the wealth, putting 10 players in the scoring column.

There was a time -- like two years ago -- when the Red Storm couldn't even hold their own against good mid-majors or middle-of-the-pack teams in the BCS leagues. That's starting to change. This season, they've already beaten Siena (the mid-major darling) and a decent Temple team, and were more than respectable in a nine-point loss to Duke.

That importance of that improvement to the Big East can't be undersold.

The league can and certainly has fared quite well without its New York City main attraction being relevant, but the heart of the league remains in the Big Apple and it helps to have its signature team back among the living. St. John's has a long way to go and a huge hill to climb. Where once kids from New York never left the city, now they hardly ever stay, and winning some recruiting wars is the only way the Red Storm can really be a major factor again.

But baby steps count, especially in the top-heavy Big East, where climbing out of the basement can be a Sisyphusian chore. The university showed faith -- surprising faith -- when it offered Norm Roberts an extension when everyone else thought the coach was on his way out.

St. John's may just be rewarded for that faith this season.