Johnnies look to zig Zags out of tourney
Can Red Storm turn their first-round opponents into Gone-zaga? It's time to dance!
NEW YORK -- St. John's has racked up plenty of frequent flier miles this season -- and it's about to rack up a whole bunch more.
The Red Storm were shipped 1,800 miles away for their first-round (and potential second-round) game of this year's NCAA tournament. St. John's, the No. 6 seed in the Southeast Region, will face No. 11 seed Gonzaga at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo., on Thursday evening. (Tip-off will be at approximately 9:45 p.m. ET, with CBS announcers Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery on the call.)
St. John's coach Steve Lavin sounded satisfied with his team's placement when he met with the media Sunday evening after the bracket was revealed. The Red Storm had been projected as high as a No. 4 seed on ESPN the past couple weeks, but had been dropped to a No. 5 or No. 6, depending on the day, after losing in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament and losing starting forward D.J. Kennedy to a torn ACL in his right knee.
"I really felt we were between a 4 and a 6, and if we had gone deeper in the Big East tournament, there was even the opportunity to climb to a 3, as we saw some teams do within our league," Lavin said. "But I never thought we'd fall lower than a 6. ... I think with the injury to D.J. Kennedy, we may have dropped from a 5 to a 6. But I thought that the [selection] committee was spot on, in terms of our seeding."
This will be St. John's fourth trip out West this season -- the Red Storm opened up against St. Mary's (Calif.) on Nov. 16, played in (and won) the Great Alaska Shootout over Thanksgiving weekend, and traveled to UCLA for a game on Feb. 5.
"One of the reasons we went out to St. Mary's to open our season, and went out to the Alaska Shootout, and went back out to play UCLA, was to prepare our players for all the different conditions you could possibly face in the postseason," Lavin said.
"The change in the time, we're used to that," forward Justin Burrell said. "Jet lag, we're familiar with. Playing in environments on the other side of the country -- we don't really think that will be an issue for us, because we dealt with it so often this year."
St. John's opponent should definitely present a challenge. Gonzaga (24-9, 11-3 in West Coast Conference) is a perennial NCAA tournament team (13 straight appearances), and has an experienced starting five, with one senior, three juniors and a sophomore.
The Red Storm have nine seniors, but none of them have ever played in an NCAA tournament -- the last time St. John's made the Big Dance was in 2002. Lavin believes his seniors' four years of playing experience will still serve them well.
"I think the resolve of our group of seniors, and the experience they've had throughout their careers, bodes well for us as we step into the single-elimination game format of the season," Lavin said. "And I have the utmost confidence that our players have the ability to problem-solve, use their ingenuity and resourcefulness, and the cohesive brand of basketball that we play will put us in position to be a really tough out in the postseason."
Gonzaga began this season with a gaudy No. 12 preseason ranking in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll. But the team got off to a rough start against a very difficult schedule, losing five of their first nine -- to San Diego State, Kansas State, Illinois, Washington State and Notre Dame.
After that the Zags rattled off nine wins in a row, before hitting another rough patch -- a three-game losing streak to conference foes Santa Clara, San Francisco and St. Mary's in late January. But Gonzaga righted the ship after that, and enters the Big Dance on a nine-game winning streak, capped off by a comfortable win over St. Mary's in the WCC championship game.
The numbers on Gonzaga are impressive. Offensively, Gonzaga scores 76.7 points per game (No. 23 in the country), shooting 47.9 percent from the field (No. 10) and 75.9 percent from the foul line (No. 15).
Three Zags average in double-figures, led by 6-foot-5 senior guard Steven Gray (13.8 points per game). Seven-foot junior center Robert Sacre averages 12.5 points, and a team-high 6.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. Elias Harris, a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward, averages 12.1 points, and 5.9 rebounds.
Defensively, Gonzaga holds opponents to 39.9 percent shooting from the field (No. 22).
"I'm familiar with their personnel because I broadcasted their games over the years," said Lavin, a former analyst for ESPN before taking the St. John's job last April. "I'm close friends with [Gonzaga coach] Mark Few and his family -- we're contemporaries, in terms of we came up in the same generation of coaches. But I think that will have very little to do with the outcome of the game."
If the Red Storm can get past the Zags on Thursday night, a fascinating potential second-round matchup looms against No. 3 seed BYU -- the Cougars are led by Jimmer Fredette (28.5 ppg), the leading scorer in the nation, but will be without leading rebounder Brandon Davies, who has been suspended for the rest of the season for violating the university's honor code.
But the St. John's players do not want to get ahead of themselves -- after all, this is a brand-new experience for them.
"Actually, I like Gonzaga. I've followed them for a while," Burrell said. "They have some really talented bigs. Steven Gray is a great player as well. So we know it's gonna be a tough challenge."
St. John's and Gonzaga have met three times before, with the Zags winning two out of three. Their most memorable matchup, of course, was in the 2000 NCAA tournament. The Red Storm came into the Big Dance on a tear, having won their first Big East tournament since 1986. But St. John's, a No. 2 seed, was upset by the No. 10-seeded Zags 82-76 in Tucson, Ariz.
The Red Storm hope the final result is different this time around.
"It should be a good matchup," guard Dwight Hardy said. "They're a great team. They've been in the tournament in past years, we haven't been there in a while. It'll just be two great teams going at it."
With a ton on the line.