In the wake of St. John's coach Steve Lavin's staggering recruiting haul this offseason, much of the excitement surrounding the Johnnies concerned how a top-five 2011 class would inject new life into the floundering program.
That enthusiasm for the future is certainly justified, but a much-maligned senior class is proving there's reason to pay attention to the current team as well.
A 61-58 upset victory over Georgetown at Madison Square Garden on Monday night gave St. John's its first win over a ranked opponent in 14 tries and improved the first-place Johnnies to 3-0 in Big East play. Their three wins over the Hoyas, at Providence and at West Virginia come as a surprise considering this senior class had a 17-37 record in the conference the previous three seasons.
Three straight quality wins certainly doesn't erase the memory of the program's previous struggles or losses to Fordham and St. Bonaventure last month, but we won't have to wait long to find out whether this run is fool's gold or not. The Georgetown game began an eight-game stretch for St. John's against nothing but teams ranked in the top 25.
Up next are games against No. 15 Notre Dame and No. 4 Syracuse, followed by another matchup with the Irish and showdowns with No. 23 Louisville and No. 25 Cincinnati. Finishing off the gauntlet is a second game against Georgetown and a visit from top-ranked Duke.
The importance of this 3-0 start to Big East play is that it's generated enthusiasm among the fanbase and at least given St. John's some margin for error going into that stretch. If the Johnnies can even win two or three of those next seven games, they'll emerge no worse than .500 in conference play and in position to make a run at an NCAA tournament berth with a strong finish against a more manageable schedule.
There's reason to believe this St. John's team could be NCAA tournament-caliber despite a lack of marquee non-conference wins.
Guard Dwight Hardy has emerged as a go-to scorer, eclipsing 20 points or more in all but one of the team's past seven games. Forwards D.J. Kennedy and Justin Brownlee have adopted the roles of complementary scorers and the whole team is defending and taking care of the basketball of late.
St. John's also may recede back into the middle of the Big East as a result of its rugged upcoming schedule, but at least the Johnnies have given fans reason to watch now while they wait for next year's star-studded class to arrive.