Carmelo who? Talks between the Knicks and Carmelo Anthony have dominated the chatter across eastern Long Island and the entire Tri-State area for the past two weeks. However, while the Knicks have certainly reignited the Garden, the St. John's Red Storm have set the World's Most Famous Arena on fire since Big East play began. After their win this past Saturday over Pittsburgh, I think the Johnnies punched their NCAA Tournament ticket with their fourth win over a top-10 ranked team. This win should silence any doubters who feared a late season collapse would keep the Red Storm out of the Big Dance.
St. John's opened their conference schedule 3-0, then lost 5 of 6. But, since a 25 point loss at Georgetown, they've won 5 conference games in a row. Yet, the Johnnies don't rank in the Big East in points per game, three-point field goal percentage, rebounds, assists, or blocks. Then how is this team looking at the possibility of a double bye in the Big East Tournament?
The Johnnies are doing it with a combination of team defense and toughness. When this class of nine seniors had their backs against the wall and their season on the line they responded. Steve Lavin's match-up zone defense has worked beautifully and the players have totally bought in to Lavin's style. This team has epitomized what college hoops is all about. There are no stars (although Dwight Hardy is a very accomplished player), they play team defense, and out hustle every opponent.
St. John's has not been to the Big Dance since 2002, when they lost to Wisconsin in the first round. Their appearance this year would mark a turnaround one year sooner than many had expected under Lavin. There is much to look forward to next season with a top-5 recruiting class. But as we all know, big name classes can also bring defensive challenges, ego clashes and early exits for the NBA.
It's rare these days when fans get to watch nine seniors giving their all, game after game. In an era when basketball has become more about "me," the Johnnies have epitomized "we." Malik Boothe lost his starting point guard job to Dwight Hardy. Boothe then became a spark off the bench and hasn't complained about playing time. Another senior, Sean Evans, who started 65 of 67 games over the last two seasons, has only started once this year. This young man, who averaged 10.7 points and 7.1 rebounds his sophomore season, is down to 2.7 points and 1.7 rebounds in fewer than 10 minutes per game. He's accepted his reduced role without grumbling and knows it's all about the "we" these days at St. John's.
The Red Storm has attracted 6 of the top 100 ranked ESPNU recruits to next year's roster (Dom Pointer, Maurice Harkless, D'Angelo Harrison, Norvel Pelle, Amir Garrett, and Jakarr Sampson). So, while there may also be a very bright future for St. John's basketball, this might be the most enjoyable season, regardless of the outcome. Scrappy, cohesive team play has made this roster a pleasure to watch as they exceeded all expectations. As a Villanova alum, I've spent the past season and a half watching a team of underachieving High School All-Americans, whose play has been marked by infighting, a lack of teamwork and suspensions. Watching this Red Storm team has made me appreciate that outstanding college basketball is still about the "we." Will next year's roster show the same humility that this year's group has? History tells us it's unlikely. But for now, let's enjoy this group as they break into the national rankings and march toward the Big Dance.
*Pete is a Montauk resident, producer at ESPN Radio 1230AM, and host of "The Pete Mundo Sports Talk Show", live on your airwaves, 88.7FM WEER Hamptons Community Radio Tuesday and Thursday nights from 7-8PM. Pete can be reached via e-mail at Peterfmundo@gmail.com.