St. John's has big opportunity at MSG

Opportunity knocks for the St. John’s Red Storm.

Coming off a stunning upset of No. 14 Cincinnati on Saturday, St. John’s plays its next three games at Madison Square Garden, in a span of seven days.

No. 19 Georgetown comes to town Saturday, and No. 17 Notre Dame visits next Tuesday -- two more chances for signature victories. But first, the Red Storm will tangle with Rutgers, Wednesday night at 7 p.m.

Coach Steve Lavin is not worried about a letdown. "With this group, there’s never been a case where we’ve overlooked somebody," Lavin said Tuesday. "I think there are times we just don’t execute well or we have poor stretches of play."

"We're very pumped up off the win in Cincinnati," said sophomore swingman Amir Garrett. "So I think we’re gonna come in tomorrow and have the same intensity."

St. John’s lost a hard-fought game to Rutgers last year, 61-58 in Piscataway. The players labeled it a rivalry game on Tuesday.

"We just both want to beat each other really bad," said Garrett. "It could be that [the schools] are so close to each other but I’m not really sure. It’s just something about them that stirs up a lot of stuff. I don’t what it is, but there’s definitely something there."

Rutgers (10-3, 1-1 Big East) is coming off a win over a ranked opponent, defeating No. 24 Pittsburgh on Saturday. But St. John’s (9-5, 1-1 Big East) pulled off an even bigger surprise, taking out the Bearcats on the road.

Lavin said Tuesday that the real breakthrough came in his team’s previous game, a 98-86 overtime loss at Villanova. "That was the best we’d played all year, against Villanova," Lavin said. "That’s when I knew we’re making some momentum here."

His players proved him right against Cincinnati three days later, outrebounding the fourth-best rebounding team in the country, 40-34.

"I think it boosted our confidence a lot, them being a Top 25 team," said Garrett. "It gave us a lot of motivation. It definitely helped us believe that we can beat anybody."

Beating Rutgers won’t be easy. The Scarlet Knights have a pair of sophomore guards playing at a high level in Eli Carter (17.5 ppg) and Myles Mack (13.2 ppg). Both are shooting 90 percent from the foul line.

As a team, Rutgers is shooting 47.6 percent from the field, ranking them 26th in Division I. But the Scarlet Knights turn the ball over 15.2 times per game, ranking them 257th.

St. John’s may again be without guard Jamal Branch, who sat out the Cincinnati game after being poked in the eye in practice the day before. Branch was expected to practice Tuesday, but Lavin wasn’t sure if he would be ready to play by Wednesday.

Lavin will however have sophomore guard D’Angelo Harrison at his disposal. Harrison is currently leading the Big East in scoring, and is seventh in the nation, averaging 21.6 points per game. And freshman center Chris Obekpa is second in the country in blocked shots (5.1 bpg).

St. John’s leads the nation in blocked shots (8.9 bpg). And they’re tied for 18th in turnovers, at 11.2 per game. But the Red Storm are shooting just 63.5 percent from the foul line, ranking them 306th.

Lavin said Tuesday that his team could be 12-2, or even 13-1, at this point, instead of 9-5. The Red Storm blew a 13-point lead against Murray State, a 17-point lead vs. UNC-Asheville, and were ahead very late in regulation against Villanova.

“I knew this would be the most difficult season of my coaching career and it has been," Lavin said. "But I enjoy it, because I really like the group that we’re working with, and I like the upside of where this group can go.”

St. John’s played a relatively easy schedule in November and December, and doesn’t have nonconference games against Duke and UCLA in January and February to boost its resume, like it did last year. If the Red Storm are going to get into the Big Dance, it’ll be on the strength of their Big East record. They’ll likely need to finish at least .500.

That makes Rutgers, at home, practically a must-win.

If St. John’s can beat the Scarlet Knights, and just earn a split against the Hoyas and Fighting Irish, they’ll be in pretty good shape.

If the Red Storm win all three, they’ll likely land in the Top 25.

"We’re at home, and in college basketball you’ve got to hold serve at home," Lavin said.

St. John’s could see its season dramatically change in a week’s time.