St. John’s has already been the biggest surprise in the Big East. It will need another unlikely occurrence to get a double-bye in the conference tournament.
The No. 15 Red Storm will know if they have a chance at a top-four league finish when they take the court Saturday night looking to continue their dominance of South Florida.
St. John’s (19-10, 11-6) is tied with Syracuse for fourth place in the Big East, but the Orange hold the tiebreaker for the final bye into the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
The Red Storm have clinched a bye into the second round and still have a chance at the double-bye by beating the Bulls (9-21, 3-14) at Carnesecca Arena. However, that opportunity may not present itself by the time they take the court if Syracuse wins its season finale earlier in the day at home against DePaul, which is in last place in the conference.
Even if St. John’s fails to earn a double-bye, it still has been an outstanding first season under coach Steve Lavin. The Red Storm will finish above .500 in conference play for the first time since going 9-7 in 2001-02.
They just needed to win their final two games to finish ahead of Syracuse but saw their six-game winning streak halted with an 84-70 loss at Seton Hall on Thursday.
“I don’t feel we came out in the right mindset,” senior guard Malik Boothe said. “They came out with more energy than us from the jump and it showed throughout the game and it showed because they got the ‘W.’”
A meeting with South Florida gives the Red Storm a chance to regain some momentum. They’ve won all five meetings in the series since the Bulls joined the Big East for the 2005-06 season.
Maintaining their composure could be a factor to extending that streak after Lavin and senior forward Justin Burrell were ejected in two separate incidents over the final two minutes Thursday.
Lavin later apologized to his team for his two technical fouls.
Dwight Hardy has been a big reason for St. John’s impressive season, ranking fourth in the conference with 18.1 points per game. The senior guard scored 23 against Seton Hall after having a career-high 34 in an 81-68 win over then-No. 15 Villanova last Saturday.
He may be in line for another big game, as South Florida has allowed opponents to shoot 49.7 percent from the floor - 37.8 on 3-pointers - over the last three games.
The Bulls, losers of seven of eight, are trying to improve their conference tournament seeding with No. 14 or 15 as the destination.
South Florida, though, has lost 12 in a row to ranked opponents after falling 66-50 to No. 4 Pittsburgh on Wednesday despite holding a lead at the half.
“Our team’s gotta regroup,” coach Stan Heath said. “We played so well in the first half, but just couldn’t sustain it for 40 minutes. That’s the nature of this league. You’re going to have games like that. We still have things to play for and we’re going to give it 100 percent and finish strong.”
Augustus Gilchrist is the only Bull averaging double-digit points at 13.1. The junior forward has averaged 23.0 on 58.1 percent shooting over the last three games.
Gilchrist has struggled in two games versus St. John’s, totaling 14 points while making 5 of 20 shots.