Commentary

Johnnies a hungry, determined group

One of the hottest teams in the country, St. John's is jelling as a unit at the right time

Updated: February 26, 2011, 12:56 PM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- About 20 minutes after St. John's got done demoralizing DePaul on Wednesday night, Dwight Hardy and D.J. Kennedy were milling around in the hallway outside the conference room where postgame interviews take place at Carnesecca Arena.

Hardy had just scored 21 points against the Blue Demons -- the 11th time this season he has cracked the 20-point plateau. Kennedy had just posted a double-double -- 11 points, 10 rebounds.

But the two St. John's seniors weren't talking to each other about themselves, or their own team's stellar performance. Instead, they were chatting about an entirely different game.

"Yo, Notre Dame only beat Providence by one," Kennedy said to his running mate, who responded with a pair of raised eyebrows.

A Notre Dame loss would have vaulted St. John's into a tie for second place in the 16-team Big East. Yep, that's what we've come to. That's how well the Red Storm have done this season -- they're scoreboard watching in late February.

"I like to believe everybody has their time," Kennedy said before Thursday's practice. "I feel like this is our time right now. I feel like we waited three years -- this is our senior year, I feel like finally all the pieces of the puzzle are coming together. I definitely feel like we have a special thing going on."

A season ago, essentially this same group of players finished 13th in the conference. A year later, they have a great chance to finish among the top four -- which would mean a bye through the first two rounds of the Big East tournament, landing them automatically in the quarterfinals.

They are currently tied for third with Louisville, with home games versus 12th-place Seton Hall and 15th place South Florida next week.

"I think our players already can feel proud of the run that they've had to position St. John's for the opportunity to do something special in the postseason," coach Steve Lavin said. "But no one is satisfied with where we are. It's a very hungry, determined group that we're working with on a daily basis."

First things first, St. John's will take on Villanova on Saturday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. The now No. 25-ranked Red Storm (18-9, 10-5) come into Saturday's game (2 p.m. ET, airing on ESPN) with a better conference record than the No. 14-ranked Wildcats (21-7, 9-6). St. John's will also have the momentum on its side, having won five straight, and seven of eight. Villanova, after starting the season 16-1, is 5-6 since, including a 69-64 home loss to No. 20 Syracuse on Monday.

"I just think we're struggling through a portion of the season, that teams go through," Villanova coach Jay Wright said Thursday. "It's something different every night. It's missing some shots one night, it's turning the ball over one night, it's defense another night. We just haven't gotten into a rhythm. ... But I like our team's mental toughness."

St. John's will aim to contain Villanova's two Coreys -- 6-foot-1 senior Corey Fisher (16.0 ppg, 5.0 apg) and 6-foot-5 senior Corey Stokes (15.0 ppg, 42.0 percent from 3-point range) -- in order to pull out a win in Philadelphia.

[+] EnlargeDJ Kennedy
Bennett Cohen/Icon SMISenior D.J. Kennedy is averaging 10.5 points per game for the Red Storm this season.

"We know what to expect," Kennedy said. "We got great guard play, they got great guard play. ... It'll all come down to whose guards win the matchup."

St. John's has played Villanova more than any other opponent in school history -- 103 times before this meeting. The Johnnies own a 59-44 edge, but have lost six straight in the series. The Red Storm haven't beaten the Wildcats since Feb. 11, 2003.

Then again, these St. John's seniors had never beaten Pittsburgh before this season. And they'd never beaten UConn in the regular season either.

St. John's owns five wins over ranked opponents overall, its most since 1999-2000. But all five of those wins were at Madison Square Garden. The Red Storm are 0-3 against ranked opponents on the road, and those three losses weren't pretty -- by 15 at Notre Dame on Jan. 8, by 25 at Louisville on Jan. 19, and again by 25 at Georgetown on Jan. 26.

But this stretch of seven wins in eight games began immediately after that Georgetown loss, which was followed by the blowout win over Duke.

"I think you can make the argument that at this point in the season they're as together and functioning as a unit as well as anyone in the country," Wright said of the Red Storm.

St. John's legend and current ESPN analyst Chris Mullin was on campus on Thursday, conducting interviews with Hall of Fame coach Lou Carnesecca, Lavin and a few of the St. John's players.

Mullin said he was very happy to see St. John's having so much success.

"Beating teams like Duke and UConn and Pitt, that catapults you to another level," Mullin said. "And I feel good for all those kids -- those seniors who went through some tough times here, stuck it out, and are now reaping the benefits. ... I told them they need to enjoy it, and I'm really proud of them and happy for them."

As he was walking away, a reporter asked Mullin when he will find out whether he made the Basketball Hall of Fame -- Mullin was named a finalist last week.

"I think the Final Four," Mullin said. "Maybe St. John's will be there."

Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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