The door leading to the NCAA Tournament that St. John’s kicked ajar over the course of their month-long hot streak has slowly started to creep shut this week.
For teams that are on the so-called “tournament bubble” late in the season, the importance of every game is magnified.
With college basketball experts at ESPN and Sports Illustrated formulating mock NCAA Tournament brackets almost daily — an ever-popular exercise called bracketology — a big win would have a team booking their flight to the first round while a tough loss will leave a team on the outside of the tournament looking in.
After losses to Villanova and Xavier, bracketology is the last word Red Storm fans want to hear.
On Saturday, St. John’s lost to the ninth-ranked Villanova Wildcats in Philadelphia 57-54. That defeat alone didn’t damage the Red Storm’s tournament stock too much, as it was just their second loss over their last 11 contests, with both losses coming against top 10 teams on the road.
But paired with an avoidable 65-53 loss to Xavier at home on Tuesday, the Red Storm’s two-game losing skid couldn’t have come at a worse time.
The Johnnies now own an 18-11 overall record, including an 8-8 mark in Big East conference play, and ESPN college basketball bracketology expert Joe Lunardi projects St. John’s as one of the last four teams in the tournament.
If you’re a fan of ugly, sloppy or just bad basketball, Philadelphia was the place to be over the weekend. St. John’s shot a meager 32 percent from the field, including 27 percent from three-point range and just 68 percent from the free-throw line. Villanova, one of the nation’s top teams, also struggled to score. The Wildcats shot 39 percent from the field and just 50 percent from the free-throw line.
St. John’s managed to hold Villanova star guard Ryan Arcidiacono to just 12 points and somehow, the Red Storm only found themselves down 56-53 in the waning seconds.
After an off-balance three-point attempt by Red Storm guard D’Angelo Harrison that was blocked out of bounds, St. John’s made a highly questionable decision to go for a two-point layup instead of a game-tying three with two seconds left.
Harrison was fouled on the attempt and made the first free throw to cut the deficit to two points. St. John’s was called for a lane violation on the second free throw and Villanova escaped with a 57-54 win.
Against Xavier, this recent St. John’s alum is still trying to figure out what team that was on the court, because it looked like a far cry from how the Johnnies normally play.
St. John’s gave up what seemed like dozens of uncontested layups under the basket by Xavier centers Jalen Reynolds and Matt Stainbrook, while having no semblance of a game plan on offense. Instead, it looked like a reincarnation of the 2009 Red Storm team, led by unpopular coach Norm Roberts, with players having little interest in running set plays or sharing the basketball.
Sophomore forward JaKarr Sampson managed to score 14 points but Harrison, the Big East’s third-highest scoring player, recorded just four points and made just one of his 11 shots. The junior guard also suffered a knee injury in the final minute of the contest, but it is unclear if his ability to play will be impacted going forward.
Just two games remain on the Red Storm’s regular season schedule, as DePaul comes to town on Sunday at 12 p.m.