DENVER -- The game that St. John's -- both coach Steve Lavin and his players -- credit as the turning point of their season was, ironically, a loss to lowly Fordham back on Dec. 11.
The Red Storm blew a 21-point second-half lead but in the process figured out that they're better off playing in two gears offensively -- slowing the pace at times, instead of just pushing the ball on the fast break at every opportunity.
Senior forward Sean Evans was a nonfactor at that point, playing very few minutes off the bench. In fact, Evans did not even get into the Fordham game -- one of two occasions early this season that Lavin elected not to use him (the other being the team's win at West Virginia on Dec. 29).
A second turning point occurred last week at the Big East tournament, when St. John's began life without D.J. Kennedy, the team's third-leading scorer and leading rebounder, who was lost for the rest of the season to a torn ACL.
This time around, Evans might be the most important player on the team.
Evans stepped in for Kennedy, who was injured less than six minutes into the Red Storm's Big East quarterfinal against Syracuse, and ended up playing a season-high 36 minutes. And his 11 points and 12 rebounds helped St. John's hang tough with the Orange until the very end, despite being without such a key player.
The truth is, Evans' role had been expanding in recent weeks, even before his teammate and close friend -- Kennedy and Evans have been roommates since freshman year -- went down.
"After the Rutgers game, [Lavin] came to me and was like, I'm the lead dog now," Evans said on Selection Sunday. "He's giving me the opportunity to play and do what I do, and he just wants me to do as much as I can with that opportunity."
At the team's practice earlier Sunday, Evans got further evidence of his increased importance.
"Today in practice, [assistant] coach [Mike] Dunlap -- we were kinda having a little shaky practice with some of the players. And he told me, 'Sean, if this is gonna be your team, you've gotta take people by the collar and push them to do the right things,'" Evans said.
"That meant a lot, coming from where I was in the beginning of the year -- from barely playing and playing a little bit, to him telling me that this is my team and putting that much on my shoulders. It means a lot."
Evans was a starter the past two seasons under former coach Norm Roberts. But when Lavin came aboard this season, he elected to shake up the starting lineup, inserting three new players: two seniors who came off the bench last season, Dwight Hardy and Justin Brownlee, who have blossomed into the team's two top scorers (and in Hardy's case, a first-team All-Big East selection); and the team's lone freshman, Dwayne Polee (see below).
However, Evans has made some big contributions of late. He scored in double figures just twice in the team's first 29 games of the season. But in the past three games, he has posted nine points and nine rebounds against South Florida, 13 points and nine rebounds in a Big East tourney game against Rutgers, and the double-double against Syracuse.
His overall numbers this season are paltry -- averaging just 3.6 points and 2.6 rebounds in 11.9 minutes per game. But two seasons ago as a sophomore, the 6-foot-8 forward posted 10.3 points and 7.1 rebounds in 27.5 minutes per game -- numbers strikingly similar to Kennedy's this season (10.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg in 28.7 minutes).
"I think as you all could see the last couple of games, as I was getting more time and opportunity, I was just trying to step up because I think my team needed it," Evans said. "I was just waiting for that chance, and I think I've got it now, and I'm gonna keep at it and play has hard as I can, do as much as I can for the team, especially with D.J. down."
"Our approach this entire year has been; the strength is in the pack," Lavin said after the Kennedy injury. "It's been different players who have stepped up at different times -- whether it's changing our starting lineups or contributions coming from someone down the stretch like Sean Evans."
Evans likely will get the start Thursday night in place of Kennedy in St. John's NCAA first-round game against Gonzaga. But he is not the only player who needs to step up in Kennedy's absence.
"D.J., he rebounds for us, he gets steals, he's one of the good defenders, he made big shots for us -- D.J. does it all," senior guard Paris Horne said Monday after the team's pep rally on campus. "Everybody's just gotta pick their play up."
Horne is another player who had much more impressive stats in seasons past. He averaged 14.6 points per game as a sophomore (including seven 20-plus-point games in Big East play) but barely half that this season (7.8) and has taken 10 or more shots in only three games.
"I feel like I have to step up my play more," Horne said. "But I know I can do it, because I did it in the past. So I'm not really worried about that. I just gotta go out and play."
Horne, like Evans, was stripped of his starting job at the beginning of the season, but he earned it back, primarily on the strength of his defensive play. He'll need to keep that up, especially without Kennedy, who also averaged a team-high 1.8 steals. But Horne certainly can contribute more offensively, particularly from 3-point range, where he's shooting a better percentage (36.9) than Hardy (35.1) and Kennedy (36.4).
St. John's typically does not take many shots from beyond the arc, but Gonzaga has struggled defending the 3-point shot this season-- the Zags are ranked No. 246 in the country, allowing opponents to shoot 35.7 percent from long range. So there might be an opportunity for Horne, along with Hardy, to do some damage from downtown.
And then there's the 6-foot-7 freshman, Polee, who has remained in the starting lineup but is averaging only 14.7 minutes per game. Polee whetted everyone's appetite with a 16-point performance in his first college game, at Saint Mary's on Nov. 16. And he has shown flashes of great athleticism from time to time. But he also has spent a lot of time on the bench, learning by observing.
In fact, Polee has scored in double figures only four times this season, the last time being in a loss at Notre Dame on Jan. 8. The freshman hasn't played more than 19 minutes in a game since and hasn't taken more than eight shots in a game since.
"We're just getting [Polee's] mindset ready. And telling him to step up," Horne said. "His arms are just as long, maybe longer, than D.J.'s, so he's good to play in the passing lanes."
Polee likely will see more playing time and could make a much bigger impact with his fellow swingman watching from the sideline.
"He's just gotta play in the moment," Horne said. "He's just gotta let his adrenaline take over -- just play, don't think. It's all or nothing now. No worrying about getting it back next game -- there is no next game."
That's right -- we've reached the do-or-die portion of this college basketball season. And for St. John's nine seniors, there is no next season. This is their one chance at one shining moment.
Hardy and Brownlee must continue to score the way they have for St. John's to have a chance to win a couple of games this week in Denver, and maybe more.
But what the Red Storm really need is for three players who average a combined total of 15.6 points to rise to the occasion, on the biggest stage of them all.
"We have weapons," Horne said. "We just gotta use them."