- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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It is easy to understand why St. John's is a likable team, led by a likable coach and a likable star.
Steve Lavin? He's never going to make anyone forget the master strategists of his craft, but he doesn't take himself too seriously and, of greater consequence, he doesn't berate his kids.
Dwight Hardy? Raised in the shadows of Yankee Stadium, he had to play community college ball in the Iowa cornfields to get from the Bronx to Queens, leaving him with many of the qualities that endear one to fellow New Yorkers.
He's tough, resilient and hell-bent on getting where he needs to get at the end of the day.
So New York is ready and willing to fall hard for Hardy's team. Even as a sixth seed facing 11th-seeded Gonzaga in Thursday night's first round of the NCAA tournament in Denver, St. John's is imperfect enough to be considered something of an underdog, and yet one with a heavy burden to bear.
The Red Storm need to put the city back in the city game. If St. John's was initially charged to augment a Knicks-led basketball renaissance in New York, the Red Storm stand today as the more credible ambassadors of the Garden and as the ballers who best represent their hometown's ethos.
"All they have to do is make shots," Lou Carnesecca said at the Big East tournament, his voice as rough as a pothole-filled city street, "because you're not going to beat them."
Standing near the Garden's freight elevator, Carnesecca kept coming back to that line -- "You're not going to beat them" -- to describe his respect and admiration for this team. At 86, the last coach to take St. John's to the Final Four, Carnesecca was asked what it would mean for him to see his school back on the game's biggest stage.
"They'd better hurry up," he said through a laugh.
"But you have to like the way they fight and never give up. That's why New Yorkers really like this team."
Those same people are struggling right now to like the Knicks, a team that Rex Ryan or Bart Scott might say can't stop a nosebleed. Although they are built around two stars -- Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony -- who eagerly embraced the challenges of the marketplace, the Knicks do not defend anyone and do not adhere to the Holzmanesque principles of selfless ball movement, at least not yet.
Mike D'Antoni has to figure it out, or else, as his Knicks aren't playing with the requisite passion or purpose. Lavin, meanwhile, has had no trouble convincing his players to respect the early-season honor code tweeted by Stoudemire himself. "Rise & grind," the tweet read.
With a roster loaded with seen-it-all seniors, St. John's survived the bloody Big East by rising and grinding with the best of 'em. The Red Storm went from a 6-12 Big East team to a 12-6 Big East team and went from 13th place to a tie for third, among the more dramatic turnarounds in conference history.
St. John's defeated the likes of Duke, Notre Dame and Pitt, and earned a national ranking for the first time in 10 years. As it turned out, Lavin knew what the hell he was doing after all.
Of course, the rap on him at UCLA was that he could recruit players a whole lot better than he could coach them. And maybe that's why the doubted and scarred Lavin connected with Norm Roberts' doubted and scarred team.
The coach and the athletes needed to believe in each other, as nobody else would offer them the benefit of the doubt. Never mind that Lavin had a 10-1 record at UCLA in the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament -- you don't sit in John Wooden's seat, surrounded by Final Four talent, and boast about landing in the Sweet 16.
Lavin was just hoping to make the NCAA field this season, and make it he did. St. John's was on such a roll after one game at the Big East tournament, a victory over Rutgers stained by wretched endgame officiating, that Hardy declared his team had "a great shot of making it to the Final Four."
The next day, D.J. Kennedy wrecked his knee under the basket, and that great shot was suddenly downsized to a long shot. But not an impossible shot.
With Hardy and fellow seniors Justin Brownlee and Paris Horne and Justin Burrell, St. John's has the necessary know-how and grit to beat Gonzaga in the first round and Jimmer Fredette and a vulnerable Brigham Young team in the second.
Pitt is the only team in the Southeast Region that scares anyone, and St. John's has notarized proof it doesn't fear the Panthers -- Hardy beat them in the Garden with his magical, mystery scoop.
Yes, it's going to be tough for St. John's to reach the national semis in Houston without Kennedy, a versatile senior who deserved better than a torn ACL and a twisted turn of fate. But the Red Storm don't have time to wait, not when next season's celebrated circle of recruits will need a couple of years to develop the kind of chemistry and can-do karma that defines this 2011 team.
How far can the Red Storm go? Only this much is certain:
New York basketball fans could sure use some kind of charmed postseason run, as their Knicks haven't won it all in 37 years, going on 38. On its end, St. John's hasn't reached the Final Four in 26 years and hasn't reached the NCAA title game in nearly 60 years.
But as a product of its toughness more than its talent, St. John's is the more genuine New York basketball team, and the one more likely to put the city back in the city game.