CINCINNATI — St. John’s is in position to meet its high expectations. Beginning Teusday afternoon, with the start of the Big East schedule against Xavier in Cincinnati, the Red Storm will find out if they are indeed up to the task of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the second time in Steve Lavin’s four years running the show in Queens.
And the Johnnies are excited about the challenge.
“We are going to be ready to play Xavier,” junior shooting guard and leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison promised.
St. John’s enters the Big East portion of the schedule with a quality 9-3 record, but still looking for a marquee victory.
It pushed undefeated top-ranked foes Syracuse and Wisconsin, but fell short in each contest, and has a 1-3 record against major conference opposition, the one win coming against ACC also-ran Georgia Tech.
The Johnnies have played their best basketball of late, winning three straight games and four of five. The only loss in that span was a narrow defeat to the second-ranked Orange, a game St. John’s led with less than five minutes remaining.
Prized freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan has shaken off a slow start, Harrison (19.5 points per game) is performing like the favorite for the Haggerty Award, given to the top metropolitan area player, and JaKarr Sampson has shown why he is considered an NBA prospect.
The Red Storm are coming off a 65-59 victory over Columbia at Barclays Center, a game they led by 14 points in the second half, but found themselves trailing with 7:25 remaining before pulling away late.
St. John’s will get tested immediately in the Big East. Following the trip to Cincinnati, it visits rival Georgetown Saturday in Washington, and hosts No. 11 Villanova, the consensus league favorite following impressive non-conference wins over No. 16 Kansas and No. 22 Iowa, a week later at the Garden.
Xavier, set to play in its first Big East game since joining the conference, is a significant first test, a perennial NCAA Tournament team that hammered Cincinnati, defeated SEC programs Tennessee and Alabama, and has the reigning Big East Player of the Week in center Matt Stainbrook in addition to hard-to-handle point guard Semaj Christon.
“Transition defense was a focus,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said of his team’s preparation. “Xavier gets down the floor in a hurry. So for us, getting back to limit Xavier runs is going to be a priority.”
“Xavier has outstanding guard play. They are improving. You can see in recent weeks they are getting better. They are a tough, physical team. They blitzed Cincinnati, and that is no easy task. They are going to be a handful.”