Some observations from watching the tape of St. John's 80-68 win at Marquette on Tuesday night, after I returned home from watching Seton Hall lose a heartbreaker to Villanova in Newark:
TEAMWORK: This was one of St. John's best team efforts of the season -- several players made major contributions. Yes, Dwight Hardy had another outstanding scoring night, pouring in 28 points. But three other players were in double figures: D.J. Kennedy (15 points), Justin Brownlee (11) and Justin Burrell (10). Brownlee also chipped in seven rebounds. Burrell had 12 rebounds -- six of them on the offensive end. And Malik Boothe scored only four points, but had six assists and three steals. There was a lot of credit to go around.
Burrell's output was particularly noteworthy, because he had just seven points and 11 rebounds in the team's past three games combined. Burrell is a very important member of this squad -- St. John's needs him to be effective scoring in the post and cleaning up on the glass. That was Burrell's first double-double of the season, and he got it despite suffering a bad cut to his upper lip that required five stitches after the game.
GETTING DEFENSIVE: St. John's did a tremendous job against one of the best offensive teams in college basketball. The Red Storm held the highest-scoring team in the Big East to 10 points under their average (77.8). Marquette came in No. 16 in all of Division I, shooting 48.0 percent from the field -- St. John's held the Golden Eagles to 43.5 percent (20-for-46). Marquette was No. 9 in D-1 in assists-to-tunover ratio (1.43-to-1) -- the Golden Eagles got 18 assists, but they also committed 18 turnovers. (And, St. John's committed only eight.)
DWIGHT BUCKETS: Hardy continues to blossom before our very eyes -- he now has scored 26 or more points in four of the team's past six games. He just looks like a different player than he was at the beginning of the season. Whether he elects to pull up for a jumper in transition, shakes his defender and penetrates into the paint, or is on the receiving end of a backdoor pass, Hardy just looks in complete control right now.
Watching him now, I can't help but think back to early November, and St. John's Media Day in Queens. Coach Steve Lavin raised a lot of eyebrows in his news conference that day when he said that Hardy was as good a shooter as he had ever coached. And when Hardy started off the season by shooting just 16-for-56 (28.6 percent) in the team's first six games, you wondered if Lavin had made a gross exaggeration.
Turns out Lavin was on the money. Hardy has been sensational, for the most part, after that slow start.
DANCIN' MACHINE: I've written the past couple of weeks that I think St. John's needs to finish .500 in the Big East to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002. Amazingly, the Red Storm are just one win away from guaranteeing at least a .500 conference record, and they still have five games to play.
What makes Tuesday night's win most impressive is that, to be honest, St. John's did not need it. Realistically, the Red Storm would have been happy to win just one of the two games on this mini-road trip to Cincinnati and Marquette. After squeaking past Cincinnati on Sunday, St. John's was playing with house money. When Marquette broke a 38-38 halftime tie by scoring the first seven points after intermission, it would not have been surprising to see the Golden Eagles run away with the game. Except, the Red Storm ran away with it from that point on instead.
After St. John's lost back-to-back games to St. Bonaventure and Fordham back in December, Lavin spoke about how his team would need to steal a game or two later on in the season -- games that St. John's was not supposed to win. Well, the Red Storm have already accomplished that, beating teams like Duke and UConn (handily, no less). And this victory falls in that category as well.
It's time to stop talking about whether St. John's is going Dancing, and time to start talking about what seed the Red Storm will get, and how far they can go.