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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Left for dead four weeks ago, St. John’s is climbing back into NCAA contention

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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D'Angelo Harrison (USATSI)

In the 35-year history of the Big East conference, no team has rallied from losing its first five league games to make the NCAA tournament.

St. John's may change that this winter.

The bubble is at least in sight for the Johnnies after their most notable win of the season, a 70-65 victory over a Creighton team that entered the game in a first-place tie atop the Big East with Villanova. The Bluejays had beaten St. John's by three in their first meeting in Omaha on a Doug McDermott 3-pointer in the final seconds.

If a 15-9 overall record and a 5-6 mark in Big East play wouldn't have St. John's in the field of 68 if the season ended today, it's at least more plausible now that the Johnnies get there by March than it appeared a few weeks ago. The Johnnies beat Marquette, Providence and Creighton in their last three games and won't be heavy underdogs in any of their last seven games besides a Feb. 22 visit to first-place Villanova.

The challenge for St. John's will be to remain focused night-in, night-out because the Johnnies' margin for error remains slim. They didn't notch any resumé-boosting victories in non-league play and they suffered bad losses to Penn State and DePaul, so they'll likely need a minimum of 10 league wins to have a realistic chance of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.

What should give St. John's hope is it's one of the Big East's most talented teams and it's starting to play like it.

St. John's was expected was expected to take a step forward after returning the core of last year's NIT team, adding elite recruit Rysheed Jordan and gaining the services of big men Orlando Sanchez and God'sgift Achiuwa. It didn't happen initially, however, as the Johnnies shot an abysmal 38.8 percent from the field their first five league games, hit less 3-pointers than any other team in the Big East and surrendered offensive rebounds at an alarming rate.

Nobody will mistake St. John's for a team that's going to dominate the glass or shoot opponents down from the perimeter, but the Johnnies have at least corrected some of the offensive shortcomings that plagued them. They've shot 50 percent or higher from the field in three of their five Big East victories and sank a respectable 36.8 percent of their threes during those games.

Volume-shooting D'Angelo Harrison has been one of the catalysts for that surge, but more efficient scoring from Jordan, forward Jakarr Sampson and center Chris Obekpa has also helped.

Against ultra-efficient Creighton, however, it was the St. John's defense that made the difference.

Jakarr Sampson hounded Doug McDermott with his speed and length, a defender remained glued to Ethan Wragge behind the arc at all times and the rest of the Bluejays didn't take advantage of the open looks they had often enough. Creighton shot 41.1 percent from the field and 5 of 22 from behind the arc. McDermott led the way with 25 points, but he didn't score in the final eight minutes because the Bluejays couldn't get him the ball in the spots he liked.

The St. John's victory certainly doesn't make this season an instant success – the early-season hole was too deep. But the recent surge from the Johnnies at least offers hope that they may dig their way out, something that seemed impossible only a few weeks ago.

Throw in the fact that St. John's hasn't executed well late in close games and that their veterans still have shown a penchant for silly fouls and ill-advised decisions with the ball in their hands, and it's easy to see why the Johnnies are struggling. There's more than enough talent for St. John's to win some games in the Big East, but a return to the NCAA tournament now is a major long shot. An 0-5 league start is simply too deep a hole in a conference with as much parity as the Big East.

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