Despite playing a fair amount of its games at Madison Square Garden, St. John’s hasn’t had much of a home-court advantage during the Big East tournament in recent years. Based on its play in Manhattan this season, that could change.
The fifth-seeded and No. 17 Red Storm look to continue their recent success at MSG when they open tournament play against 13th-seed Rutgers on Wednesday.
St. John’s (20-10) finished on a 9-2 stretch to post its first 20-win season since going 21-13 in 2002-03. Though the Red Storm are destined to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002, they’d first like to enjoy some success this week.
The Red Storm have not won more than one game in the Big East tournament since claiming the 2000 championship.
“We’re ready for another challenge and this is a great challenge,” first-team all-Big East guard Dwight Hardy told the school’s official website. “We can’t be more blessed with the situation we’re in right now.”
After going 44-53 the previous three seasons, St. John’s senior-dominated roster under new coach Steve Lavin tied for third with a 12-6 league finish.
“This season, the ‘Journey with the Johnnies’ in our inaugural season as staff, was really a pleasure, an honor, a privilege just to participate in it, to experience the breakthrough and thrill at the success at a very high level,” Lavin said.
A big reason for that turnaround was the Red Storm’s play at MSG, where they went 7-1 in their second home with wins over ranked foes Georgetown, Notre Dame, Duke, Connecticut and No. 1 seed Pittsburgh.
Lavin, however, is smart enough to know what happens in the regular season means nothing come tournament time.
“I like the fact that we’re familiar with The Garden, because it’s our home court and we’ve had some degree of success there,” Lavin said. “But this is a whole ‘nother animal when you step into the postseason single-elimination game format and a level of competition that’s unparallel in the country.”
Lavin expects his team to be ready Wednesday, especially after it needed a last-second layup from forward Justin Brownlee to beat Rutgers 58-56 on Feb. 2. The Red Storm shot 36.7 percent - a season-low at Carnesecca Arena during league play.
Hardy, scoring 17.9 points per game, had 15 versus Rutgers but is averaging 24.7 on 50.3 percent shooting in nine games since.
Though St. John’s has won 14 of 17 against Rutgers (15-16), the Scarlet Knights proved they can play with the Red Storm and should have plenty of momentum after a 76-70 overtime win over Seton Hall in Tuesday’s first round.
“I thought I was playing the hottest Big East team (in Seton Hall) and now we face an opponent that’s even hotter in this building,” coach Mike Rice said. “It’s a big challenge, love it, we’re on to the next round, great opportunity for our program.”
Senior forward Jonathan Mitchell scored 25 points as the Scarlet Knights snapped a three-game tournament losing streak.
The only Rutgers player averaging double-figure points at 14.2, Mitchell had 21 against St. John’s last month.