More than a few eyebrows were raised when St. John’s was picked to finish sixth in the 16-team Big East.
Many people thought first-year coach Steve Lavin wouldn’t truly make his mark until the 2011-12 season and beyond.
That’s when Lavin’s Top 3 recruiting class filled with star players from New York, Ohio, Texas and California comes to Queens.
Yet here we are in early January and the Johnnies are a perfect 3-0 in Big East play with road wins over West Virginia and Providence and an exciting 61-58 victory over No. 13 Georgetown in an ESPN “Big Monday” game at Madison Square Garden.
The Johnnies have now won five straight and ended a 14-game losing streak to ranked teams. St. John’s (10-3, 3-0) is off to its best start since 1999-2000 when they were 4-0 in the league.
The nine-man senior class, which has never come close to playing in the NCAA tournament, is playing like they want to Dance in their final season.
“It would break my heart if I never got a chance to play in the NCAA and put St. John’s where it deserves to be,” said Justin Brownlee, whose rebound basket with 10 seconds to play gave the Red Storm the lead for good. “So to actually see that game come down, and to see Dwight make that play and Brownlee get the offensive rebound and we go up to kind of seal the deal for us, it was a dream-come-true kind of thing.”
Dwight Hardy, St. John’s first Big East Player of the Week in seven years, tallied 20 points for the sixth time in seven games.
Remember, both Brownlee and Hardy were JUCO players recruited by former coach and current SNY analyst Norm Roberts.
Right now, Brownlee, the MVP of the Great Alaska Shootout and the Holiday Festival, and Hardy are the team’s two best players.
Roberts said recently that JUCO players often struggle in their first season at the Division 1 level, but tend to excel during their second.
Lavin appears be letting this team run-and-gun more, utilizing its athleticism in the open floor.
But they are also playing terrific defense.
The Red Storm’s constantly changing defenses, with a tendency toward zones most of the time, were so effective that Georgetown’s three guards and leading scorers — Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark — were a combined 7-of-25 from the field — 2-of-13 on 3-pointers — and had a total of 20 points, 26.1 below their combined averages coming in.
It was Georgetown’s second-lowest point total of the season. The Hoyas had 55 points in losing the Big East opener last week to Notre Dame.
Speaking of Notre Dame, the Johnnies visit the No. 14 Irish Saturday in yet another game against a ranked opponent.
After that come dates with No. 4 Syracuse Jan. 12, followed by a return game with the Irish Jan. 14 at MSG.
It’s too early to tell whether the Johnnies will live up to their preseason ranking, but as of now Lavin and Company are providing some genuine excitement in the Big Apple.
Perhaps a year before many thought they would.
(The AP contributed)
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.