St. John’s regains relevancy with upset

The 10 seniors had heard all about the heralded signing class that new St. John’s coach Steve Lavin was busy assembling since he took the job last April.

It’s a nine-man group that includes a half-dozen players ranked in the Top 100 – and a class that’s supposed to mark the dawn of a new era for the Red Storm.

The turning of the page.

So, who could blame the current cast for feeling neglected and tossed away by virtually everyone except Louisville coach Rick Pitino – who picked St. John’s first in the Big East preseason poll?

"We understand,” said one of the St. John’s seniors, forward Justin Burrell. "This is a business. The train doesn’t stop after we leave.”

These are guys who hadn’t done much to endear themselves to New Yorkers who are desperate for something in the college basketball area to grab onto.

Three seasons of mediocrity – and that’s being kind to a program that only got an invite to the Big East tournament because it expanded and decided to let all 16 teams participate.

But now this team, the most experienced in all of college basketball, has become relevant in its final go-around after an upset over No. 9 Georgetown 61-58 on Monday night that put the Red Storm at 3-0 in conference play.

St. John’s.

First place in the Big Bad Big East.

"We deserve it,” said D.J. Kennedy, another one of the vets who is in his fourth season in the program. "If anyone does, it’s us.”

Lavin admitted he was concerned about losing the current group early on because the majority of his efforts after taking the job were devoted to assembling a coaching staff, putting together the recruiting class and also fundraising.

"No question I was worried,” Lavin said after the victory.

But since Lavin returned to campus in mid-October for practice, nearly all of his energy has been spent with the current players, the ones that were recruited by former Red Storm coach Norm Roberts.

There were relentless text messages from Lavin to each and every one and walks in Central Park at lunch time.

"Because of my experience being fired and having another coach come in,” the former UCLA head man said, "I have a unique perspective and understand how challenging it is to be recruited by one coach and then have to play for another. There are no easy answers.”

The Lavin Era began with a loss at Saint Mary’s, but St. John’s has been difficult to figure early in the season. There have been losses to Fordham and St. Bonaventure – and now three wins to begin Big East play.

There might be a new coach and a completely different system in place, but the names on the back of the jerseys have remained constant.

"They’re exactly the same,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. "They’ve been out there for four years, all playing significant minutes. They have experience.”

But in the past, it’s been mostly experience losing.

It’s a team that didn’t finish higher than 13th in the Big East under Roberts.

A team that had difficulty winning on the road.

Now St. John’s sits atop the conference after snapping a 14-game winless streak against nationally ranked teams. The Red Storm also claim the lone two road wins in Big East play.

"This is why we came here,” said St. John’s senior guard Dwight Hardy, who led the Red Storm with 20 points against Georgetown.

St. John’s ground out the win against the Hoyas and wound up doing it with defense and by taking care of the basketball.

Georgetown’s perimeter trio of Austin Freeman, Jason Clark and Chris Wright entered the game averaging a total of 46 points per game; they finished with a combined 20, shooting 7-of-25 from the field and 2-of-13 from beyond the 3-point arc.

"We showed we’re a tough team,” Hardy said as his coach nodded in agreement next to him.

D.J. Kennedy, one of three players who logged 40 minutes in the win (Hardy and Justin Brownlee were the others), said he can’t ever recall feeling as positive as while walking off the court on Monday night.

"We’ve played on three losing teams, and we’re tired of it,” Burrell said. "This is long overdue.”

St. John’s fans walked out of the world’s most famous arena on Monday night with smiles while high-fiving one another – and shockingly, it had nothing to do with the future.