NEW YORK -- St. John's will be back to full strength Saturday when it plays its biggest game in three years.
Starting point guard Rysheed Jordan will return to the lineup at Marquette after missing Sunday's home win against DePaul while grieving the tragic death of his aunt.
"Jordan's had two consecutive good practices this week," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said Thursday, "and seems to be in a good place, in terms of his frame of mind, being focused on basketball."
Key reserves Sir'Dominic Pointer and Orlando Sanchez also lost people close to them in the past couple weeks. Sanchez missed a game after the birth of his baby daughter, and starting center Chris Obekpa missed a game due to an ankle injury. But all three players are ready for Saturday as well.
"You could see it in their faces, and just the way they move -- [they're] basically back, back to how it was," guard Phil Greene IV said of Jordan, Pointer and Sanchez. "More focused. We're focused on Marquette now, trying to get a win down there."
Added Lavin: "I really like this team, and as you guys know, I have since the start of the season. But even more so now, when I consider what they've been through. Both on the court, with that challenging 0-5 start to conference play. But also off the court, [with] just the number of tragedies and setbacks and loss of loved ones.
"They still have this remarkable resiliency and spirit about them, and as a result we're playing our best basketball at the right time of the year."
St. John's (19-11, 9-8) has bounced back from that disastrous Big East start to win nine of its past 12 games. But after back-to-back losses to Villanova and Xavier to close February, the Red Storm sit on the NCAA tournament bubble.
The latest bracket projection by ESPN expert Joe Lunardi, published Thursday, does not have St. John's among the field of 68 teams. In fact, it places the Red Storm sixth on the list of teams on the outside looking in.
A win against Marquette (17-13, 9-8) would give St. John's 20 wins overall, an above-.500 conference record, and a bye into the Big East tournament quarterfinals. The Red Storm would face either Xavier or Providence, and probably need to win that game as well to feel reasonably comfortable on Selection Sunday.
A loss to Marquette would leave St. John's at .500 in the Big East, either in sixth place or tied for sixth with Georgetown, and probably needing to advance to the Big East tournament championship game to have any chance of an at-large bid.
Lavin said he's been so focused on guiding his players through this tumultuous period off the court that he hasn't paid much attention to the bracket speculation. But Greene sounded well aware of the high stakes for Saturday's game.
"Yeah, of course," Greene said, when asked if this feels like the biggest game of his St. John's career. "Keeping our chances alive to make the NCAA tournament. It's a big one on the road, at Marquette. We need this win, just to keep our season alive."
The Red Storm will fly to Milwaukee on Friday morning, and practice at Marquette later in the day.
"Everybody knows what time it is," Obekpa said of himself and his teammates. "It's time to take care of business."