"We sat in the locker room for maybe ten minutes after this game and just tried to talk about what is it, what is it that we can't do," said St. John's junior forward Justin Burrell after the West Virginia loss. "I can't pinpoint it. I have no idea what it is."
It sounded like the age-old philosophy question- "What is it?" Is "it" a person, place or thing? Is "it" a state of mind? Does "it" really exist? Or worse, is "it" so metaphysical that defining it would be nearly impossible?
In any case, something changed for St. John's. Not sure what "it" was, but it changed.
Surely, much has transformed for the Johnnies ever since its last loss on Feb. 6 to then-No. 6/6 West Virginia at home. At that time, Burrell and company did not know what "it" was - the glaringly evident piece of the puzzle needed to change its five-game losing streak around.
But, whatever it was, now, it's fixed!
Since then, St. John's (14-10, 4-8) went on to win two straight against top-tier BIG EAST programs- contests that some thought were no-go's for the Johnnies.
However, St. John's proved the naysayers wrong and earned illustrious wins. The first, which snapped a five-game slide, was against Louisville, 74-55, at home on Feb. 11. Ironically, the same Cardinals' squad that could not lead for any of the contest against St. John's, went on to upset No. 2 Syracuse on the road, 66-60, only about 72 hours later.
And, St. John's second victory came as the Red Storm exposed Notre Dame, which was without the services of its leading scorer and rebounder, BIG EAST beast, senior forward Luke Harangody. On top of that, the St. John's most recent win over the Fighting Irish (17-9, 6-7) came on the road at the Joyce Center, 69-68 - a feat that has not been accomplished since 1997.
The Johnnies have had its fair share of a valentine day massacre last year against then-No. 10 Marquette, 73-59, but St. John's approached this season's love-and-basketball holiday with the perfect winning cocktail to become the heartbreaker, not the broken-hearted.
Against Notre Dame, St. John's had as great a strategy on the defensive end as it did the offensive end. Senior guard Tory Jackson was held to 1-of-10 shooting overall thanks to the tremendous defense St. John's put on the hardwood, forcing him to attempt his own shots rather than getting a good look for a teammate. Johnnies' point guards, junior Malik Boothe and freshman Malik Stith kept up with the defensive pressure and slowed Jackson's offense. This wearing defense, inflicted by the Johnnies, spurred more scoring opportunities.
On the offensive end, St. John's shot 48 percent (24-of-50), despite being put through the wringer with a tough 1-2-2 and 2-3 zone defensive formations. The Johnnies even effectively added the element of rain to its game - consistent precipitation from the perimeter corners and the elbows/high post area. Most notably, St. John's had one of its best 3-point shooting efforts on record under the Norm Roberts Era. This was thanks, in large part, to junior guard Dwight Hardy's fearless 5-of-7 from deep.
St. John's finished 50 percent (10-of-20) from the outer circles in the contest. This was not a result of the lack of 6-foot-8 big man Harangody, but the battle between St. John's and Notre Dame's guard play.
For both Louisville and Notre Dame, the games carried nuances of NCAA tournament implications, as losing to a team with a record such as the Johnnies' would be a bit of a taboo to the selections committee and could be damaging come post-season decision of who gets the top 65-team nod. The resurgent Red Storm is stronger than ever, and there could be much more destruction in its path if the Queens, N.Y. squad keeps it up.
The strength coming from the team might have, just recently, manifested itself in the form of big-time wins, but the ability to play in this fashion has always been present, sitting sedentarily for sometime. Perhaps, St. John's just needed that extra spark to get the dynamite lit.
Who knows, we could be looking at the future 2007-08 Georgia Bulldogs, then led by current Utah Jazz rookie Sundiata Gaines. At the time, the 'Dogs were trailing at the bottom of the SEC standings (4-12) and crept into national prominence late in the post-season. Anything is possible for the Johnnies from this point on down the stretch, especially in a volatile time of year where national faces become strangers and strangers become NCAA bracket-busters (Davidson, 2008).
Clearly, the talent and skill are there for St. John's. It's just all up to the Johnnies as to how they will leave their mark for the rest of this basketball season.
But, first- Seton Hall.
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