NEW YORK -- This was supposed to be Steve Lavin's breakthrough season at St. John's.
So far, it's been anything but.
The Red Storm fell to 9-6 overall Saturday, and 0-3 in the Big East, thanks to a 74-67 loss to Villanova at Madison Square Garden.
St. John's did play much better than it did last Saturday at Georgetown, when it trailed by 26 at the half. Then again, it would have been difficult to play any worse.
The Red Storm led the No. 8-ranked Wildcats 33-31 at the half and went toe-to-toe with them for 33 minutes and change but wilted down the stretch.
Trailing 56-55, Villanova freshman Kris Jenkins drained a 3-pointer with 6:15 remaining, putting the Wildcats back in front. That was the beginning of an 8-0 spurt, capped off by a Darrun Hilliard II trey, that made it 63-56 with 5:12 left. St. John's never got closer than four points the rest of the way.
Villanova (15-1, 4-0) shot 54.1 percent from the field in its first three Big East games but just 35.2 percent (19-for-54) on Saturday. Coach Jay Wright credited the Red Storm after the game.
"I thought St. John’s played really well, their defense was outstanding," Wright said. "They did a great job of just getting up in all of our people one-on-one and just challenging them. In the first half they won the battle. We adjusted to it and when they do that you have to have guys make plays."
The Wildcats won the game at the foul line, with 16 more attempts (40-24) and 12 more makes (31-19). Brooklyn native JayVaughn Pinkston led five Villanova players in double figures, with 15 points (and 10 rebounds).
St. John's did play well defensively. But the Red Storm shot the ball even more poorly than the Wildcats did, 34.3 percent (23-for-67). D'Angelo Harrison scored 22 points, but was 4-for-13 from the field. Rysheed Jordan chipped in 12 points, and Jakarr Sampson added 10 points and nine boards.
"I thought we competed well today, and the numbers bear that out," Lavin said. "To hold Villanova to 35 percent from the field, we did some good things defensively. We defended and we competed, but we didn’t finish the task which allows you to win the game. But we made progress this week in practice, and I think it carried over into the game, so we’ll build from there as we get ready for DePaul."
It was a better performance, but it's hard to view it as progress. St. John's is now 0-3 in the Big East for the first time in Lavin's four-year tenure -- and the Big East is much weaker than it has been in years past.
Sampson, one of the two St. John's players made available to the media after the game, echoed his coach's optimistic outlook.
"No, we’re not worried," the sophomore said. "I feel like we played a really good game today. We’re gonna get better. I feel like we’re gonna get better."
But Sampson also said something else of note earlier in the news conference: "We're trying to find our identity."
Lavin took a step in the right direction Saturday in that regard, paring down his rotation and reinserting Sampson, Jordan and Phil Greene IV into the starting lineup after shaking things up at Georgetown. But players' roles still feel somewhat undefined as we enter mid-January.
The time for tinkering should be nearly over. Selection Sunday is only nine weeks away.
St. John's has now had close calls against No. 2 Syracuse and No. 8 Villanova, plus a competitive effort against No. 4 Wisconsin. But close calls won't get you into the NCAA tournament.
The Red Storm are 0-3 against ranked opponents, with only one more on their schedule -- this same Villanova squad, Feb. 22 in Philadelphia.
The Big Dance was the bare-minimum goal at the start of the season. But right now, March Madness talk should be placed on the back-burner.
St. John's needs to get out of the Big East cellar first.