Storming Top 25

It’s been a long time coming.

For the first time since November 28th, 2000, the St. John’s Red Storm are ranked in the Top 25.

After almost cracking the polls last week, settling in at number 31, the Johnnies beat Marquette on the road and scored another big upset at Madison Square Garden by beating Pittsburgh to make their way to #23 in the national AP Poll and #25 in the USA/ESPN coach’s poll.

Many things have changed since the last time St. John’s cracked the Top 25. On November 28th, 2000, Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women, Part 1” was the biggest song in the country. Jim Carrey’s holiday hit “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was #1 at the box office. Florida was still sorting through ballots to declare a winner in the 2000 Presidential Election.

Now, a decade later, the Johnnies have shaken the monkey from their backs and put themselves in a position to control their own destiny with less than 3 weeks until Selection Sunday.

On a team that is essentially the same from last year, returning all five starters and over 90% of their scoring, much of the credit for this season’s success seems to belong to the coaching staff.

And deservedly so.

Steve Lavin has been just the coach this program was looking for when they hired him last year. Icon/SMI

Steve Lavin has been worth every penny thus far for St. John’s. Inheriting a team that had trouble last season closing out games down the stretch, Lavin has been the play-caller in last second victories over Rutgers, Georgetown, and Pittsburgh. Those games, had they gone the other way, would mean the difference between the position they sit in right now and watching another NCAA Tournament from home.

But the most important part of Lavin’s time in Queens has been off-the-court. He has been a superb ambassador for the St. John’s program, becoming the wind to push them from the doldrums, back into the national spotlight. Lavin has made the rounds in the New York and national media, appearing on 660AM WFAN and 1050 ESPN Radio New York, as well as Sportscenter and his appearance today alongside Dwight Hardy on ESPN First Take. He has reformed the program’s image from “fallen powerhouse” back to legitimate contender in the Big East and a tough matchup come tournament time. And, with the second-ranked recruiting class in the country, the Red Storm want to cement themselves in this spot for a long time to come. Most importantly though, he has earned the respect of his players, leading by example.

“He’s calm. He’s the calmest out of everybody, just sitting there smiling and tells us we’re going to win the game and to stick with it,” the normally soft-spoken Hardy said of the first year head coach. “He talks to each of us individually as the huddle breaks. He tells us what he wants from us and to play basketball the way we’ve been playing since we were five years old. He’s a wonderful coach.”

Dwight Hardy has been the driving force behind the Red Storm’s success all season, averaging over 17 points and tallying 10 games of 20 points or more. Since Coach Lavin made him the starting point guard during an injury-plagued early season for starter Malik Boothe, Hardy has flourished.

After dropping 20 points, including a magical reverse lay-up with 42 seconds left, to sink the 13th ranked Georgetown on January 3rd, Hardy has taken his game to another level. On January 30th, at the Garden against 19-1 and 3rd ranked Duke, Hardy played all 40 minutes and led the Red Storm to the program’s most meaningful victory in a decade.  He scored 26 points on 9/13 shooting and committed just one turnover to stun the reigning National Champions.

He has set and broken his career high for points three different times this season, dropping 30 in a loss to Fordham, 32 on the road at UCLA, and 33 the next game in St. John’s upset over #9 UConn on February 10th.

Dwight Hardy sunk #4 Pitt with a baseline layup February 19th. Anthony Gruppuso/US Presswire

And the latest installment of Hardy’s heroics came Saturday at the Garden, when he danced along the baseline and hit a tough lay-up with 1.2 seconds left to beat #4 Pittsburgh. He finished the game with 19 points and just one turnover, on his way to being named Big East Player of the Week for the second week in a row and third time this season.

His transformation from a contributing bench player last season to a headlining superstar is a big part of the reason the Johnnies are in position to going dancing in March. Lavin’s move to put Hardy at point guard means the ball is in his hands every play, where it is most likely to be a problem for opposing defenses. Hardy’s ability to create off the dribble, especially in clutch situations, opens up the floor not only for himself, but for everyone else around him.

Recent wins by the Red Storm have put them exactly where they want to be, in control of their own fate coming down the stretch. With four games to go before the Big East Tournament, St. John’s could finish with its first 20-win season since 2001-2002. Of the four remaining games, they will undoubtedly be favored in three (vs. DePaul, at Seton Hall, vs. USF) and have an interesting and winnable match-up with Villanova on the road this Saturday.

“I am really proud of our kids to be able to win two games in a three day stretch, which is very difficult to do in the Big East,” Lavin said after the Johnnies’ win over Marquette on Wednesday. “The quick turnaround and having to play two high quality opponents…gives you the opportunity to rehearse for NCAA Tournament conditions.”

If St. John’s succeeds in making the NCAA Tournament, there will be serious talk about Coach Lavin being named Big East (or perhaps even National) Coach of the Year, to which he will most likely respond with at least one reference to a sports or film figure (as he often does in interviews). Dwight Hardy will also make a strong case for Big East Player of the Year, which he would accept in all his humbleness, were he to win. But, regardless of awards and accolades any one individual may attain on this team, the chatter and speculation is quickly turning into fact: college basketball is back in New York City.

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