St. John’s controls NCAA Tournament destiny but need to thrive in key stretch

MILWAUKEE — You can twist yourself into a pretzel agonizing over the close losses. 

Wondering what might have been had St. John’s found a way to steal one of those close games against No. 1 Connecticut, No. 7 Marquette and No. 19 Creighton, defeats by a combined six points. 

You can drive yourself crazy following all the Bracketologists and tracking the NCAA Tournament bubble, trying to figure out what it will take for the Johnnies to return to March Madness and how every result directly impacts their path. 

St. John’s fans are wired to expect the worst, understandable considering the last two-plus decades of mostly irrelevance. They make Mets and Jets fans look like eternal optimists.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear the recent negativity surrounding this team, which had lost five of its last six games prior to Tuesday’s 28-point thumping of perennial Big East cellar-dweller DePaul. 

St. John's Red Storm center Joel Soriano (11) gets fouled under the basket by DePaul Blue Demons forward Da'Sean Nelson
St. John’s Red Storm center Joel Soriano gets fouled under the basket by DePaul Blue Demons forward Da’Sean Nelson. Robert Sabo for NY Post

Despite those frustrating close losses, despite the skid, despite St. John’s now finding itself squarely on the bubble for the time being, everything remains in play for coach Rick Pitino’s team in his first season. 

A top-five finish in the Big East. A return to the main draw of the tournament for the first time since 2015. All the Johnnies’ realistic preseason goals are well within reach. They control their own destiny. 

The key stretch begins in earnest Saturday at Marquette, followed by another vital road game against on-the-bubble Providence, which is 48-5 at Amica Mutual Pavilion in its last 53 games. There is another trip to Butler and home games against Creighton and Seton Hall.

St. John’s (14-9, 6-6) has already beaten Butler and Providence and lost by one point apiece to Creighton and Marquette. If it can’t win, at minimum, two of those games, and take care of the three remaining contests against DePaul and Georgetown, it doesn’t belong in the tournament. Simple as that. 

“We want to definitely get one for sure,” point guard Daniss Jenkins said, referring to the upcoming two-game road trip. “We want to win both, obviously, but we know we need one.” 

Following the win over DePaul, an optimistic Pitino pointed to the losses to UConn, Marquette and Creighton, saying St. John’s was only a handful of points away from being ranked. That is true. But it’s also been a frustrating trademark of this team, being unable to finish out games. It goes beyond those three.

There was the loss at Xavier when the Johnnies were outscored 13-2 over the final 2:43. There were the setbacks to Boston College and No. 18 Dayton, games in which Pitino’s team was close in the final five minutes. Overall, St. John’s is 5-5 in contests decided by single digits and 3-6 when the margin is six points or fewer with less than five minutes remaining. 

St. John's Red Storm guard Chris Ledlum (8) rebounds during the second half when the St. John's Red Storm played the DePaul Blue Demon
Chris Ledlum grabs a rebound during St. John’s win over DePaul. Robert Sabo for NY Post

“It’s just about us doing the things we haven’t been good at in tough games,” Jenkins said. “Until we do it, until we get over the hump of winning a tough game like that and doing the little things differently, it’s going to be the same thing. 

“We don’t need to do [anything] totally different. When I go back and look at these games, we had these games won. We had a win but there was just something, a [bad] possession, a rebound, something little like that, that may have gone the other way.” 

Those shortcomings in the clutch have prevented St. John’s from taking off, leading to this recent stretch in which it has lost far more than it has won. Pitino’s first season is so far without a signature moment. There have, of course, been strong performances, one-sided wins over Utah, Butler, Xavier and Villanova twice. But that big victory has eluded the Johnnies, creating a thin tournament resume. 

Pitino was asked if he believes this is an NCAA Tournament team, and he didn’t hesitate at all. 

“Yes, without question,” he said, and added: “We’ve got to get to 11 or 12 [league] wins, whatever it takes to get there. I try to tell them to play every game as if it’s the last game you are going to play at this time of year in February.” 

Pitino went on to call every game this month “gigantic” for everyone with March dreams. That rings true particularly for St. John’s. All their goals remain possible despite a shaky January, but it’s going to take the Johnnies’ best basketball to attain them. 

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