St. John's preview: Sweet 16 or bust

St. John's begins its 2013-14 season Friday night against 20th-ranked Wisconsin, in Sioux Falls, S.D. -- by far the most challenging opener in Steve Lavin's four years as coach.

That seems fitting, since this season feels like a final exam, testing whether Lavin really can turn this once-storied program around.

"If we stay injury-free and we continue to develop at the pace that this group has, I feel we'll have the opportunity to do something special come March," Lavin said at the Red Storm's media day on Oct. 10.

A return to the NCAA tournament would be nice, but that's not special enough. This team needs to make the Sweet 16. Anything less would be a disappointment.

Lavin was hired in March 2010, with St. John's having been absent from March Madness for eight consecutive years. He and his staff did an excellent job with the roster he inherited in year one, guiding the team to a 21-12 record and a return to the Big Dance.

The train went off the rails in year two. Lavin missed most of the season after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. The roster was wafer-thin and full of freshmen. Assistant coach Mike Dunlap did an admirable job under the circumstances, but the team still finished 13-19.

Thankfully Lavin made a full recovery, and St. John's made some progress in year three. The Red Storm improved to 17-16, but again missed the NCAA tournament.

We've now reached year four. The deck is full. No more excuses.

To put things in some perspective, Kentucky, the preseason top-ranked team in the country, has nine players who made ESPN's Top 100 as high school seniors. Michigan State, ranked No. 2, has eight of them.

St. John's is close behind with six -- three juniors (D'Angelo Harrison, Sir'Dominic Pointer, Jamal Branch), two sophomores (Jakarr Sampson, Chris Obekpa) and one freshman (Rysheed Jordan). That group -- along with Orlando Sanchez, Phil Greene IV, Max Hooper and God'sgift Achiuwa -- is good enough to make some serious noise over the next five months.

Harrison is one of the best perimeter scorers in the country. Sampson, at 6-foot-8, can score inside and out. Branch is an outstanding passer, and Pointer is an even better finisher. Obekpa led the nation in blocked shots as a freshman, and Jordan is the most-hyped St. John's freshman since Felipe Lopez.

They've got talent, they've got balance, and they've got plenty of minutes under their belt, other than Jordan. "It's time to win here," Harrison told me on Oct. 10 -- and he's right.

Wisconsin will be very tough, even on a neutral floor. But after that, St. John's plays its next 11 games in the five boroughs -- either at Carnesecca Arena, Madison Square Garden or the Barclays Center. They should win every one of them, with the exception of a game against No. 8 Syracuse at MSG on Dec. 15.

Big East play commences on New Year's Eve at Xavier, and the Red Storm -- picked to finish fifth in the conference's preseason poll -- can compete with Marquette, Georgetown and Creighton for the league title.

To be frank, barring major injuries, anything less than an NCAA tournament bid would be a disaster.

St. John's hasn't won a game in the Big Dance since 2000. It hasn't won two since 1999, when Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace), Marvis "Bootsy" Thornton, Erick Barkley & Co. advanced to the Elite Eight, losing by just three points against Ohio State with a chance to make the Final Four.

That team had three players go on to the NBA -- Artest, Barkley and Lavor Postell. This team could have even more. But there's no time to waste. Sampson flirted with the idea of leaving after winning Big East Rookie of the Year last season. Harrison could make the leap with another big year. And if Jordan is as good as advertised, he could be one-and-done.

Lavin has proved he can recruit elite talent to St. John's -- an accomplishment in and of itself. But now he needs to coach 'em up.

If he doesn't win -- and win big -- this season with the Red Storm, he probably never will.