Bringing it all back home

For the first time since Nov. 28, 2000, the St. John’s men’s basketball team has a number to the left of its name.

The Red Storm (17-9, 9-5) earned the No. 23 ranking in the most recent Associated Press poll and the No. 25 spot in the Feb. 21 ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, finally breaking through to the rankings after receiving votes during the weeks of Feb. 14, Jan. 10, 17, and 31.

“I think it’s a benchmark of achievement for the senior class and naturally it will be helpful in recruiting with the national exposure,” head coach Steve Lavin said of the achievement. “It is empirical evidence that their hard work is paying off. You try not to have emotional peaks and valleys and you are always concerned and mindful of complacency. But with this group, they have an

outstanding work ethic, focus and resolve to finish their careers on a high note.”

St. John’s has set the college basketball world ablaze this season, led by Lavin, a former ESPN analyst, and senior guard Dwight Hardy, who has made numerous game-winning shots in his time with the Red Storm and has been named Big East Player of the Week a conference-leading three times this season.

Highlights from the Red Storm’s win over Pitt—notably Hardy’s game-winning basket with 1.2 seconds remaining and the celebration that followed after the final horn sounded—led SportsCenter’s week in review montage on Feb. 19.

The Red Storm have the No. 1 strength of schedule in the country and five wins over Top 25 opponents, most recently a thrilling 60-59 win over then-No. 4 Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 18. St. John’s has also defeated then-No. 3 Duke, then-No. 13 Georgetown, then-No. 9 Notre Dame, and then-No. 10 Connecticut.

According to the most recent report, St. John’s has the No. 12 ranking, with a 6-4 record over the RPI Top 25, 7-7 against teams in the Top 50, 9-7 over teams in the Top 100 and 12-8 against the Top 150. Of the Red Storm’s 26 opponents this season, 13 have been ranked in the RPI’s Top 25.

St. John’s has also won six of its last seven games since losing three straight in mid-January, with two — wins over Cincinnati and Marquette — coming on the road during that span.

This team is not without superstition, either. In support of Coaches vs. Cancer, a charity formed by Jim Valvano in 1992 to fund cancer research, Lavin roamed the sidelines wearing sneakers in place of dress shoes, and an opened collar instead of a tie.

However, after St. John’s beat Duke—when Lavin debuted the look—the change in the head coach’s uniform stuck and has lasted throughout the Red Storm’s stretch. Members of the men’s basketball staff have also been sporting the look.

The achievement is even more special because, of the Red Storm’s 10 seniors, Hardy, Justin Burrell and Malik Boothe are all native New Yorkers. Sophomore point guard Malik Stith is from Hempstread, NY.

“It’s great to see a number by our name. We know we are the first St. John’s team since 2000 to be ranked in the Top 25,” said Boothe, a Queens native. “Being from here, myself and my teammates are proud of the resurgence of college basketball in New York, and getting the city back excited — the Garden is electric every night. But we’re not going to get complacent now. We just have to keep it going, and keep getting better.”

Each of the metro-area schools—St. John’s, Fordham, Seton Hall and Rutgers—debuted new head coaches this season, and each school has seen marked improvement in its program. Earlier this season, Fordham upset St. John’s and Seton Hall beat Syracuse on the road.

St. John’s has remaining matchups with DePaul, No. 15 Villanova, Seton Hall and South Florida before Big East tournament play starts on March 8.

The larger goal looming for the men’s basketball team is whether it will gain a bid to the NCAA tournament, which it last did in 2002.

With five wins over Top 25 teams and key road wins over Big East opponents, experts believe the Red Storm have a well-rounded résumé that should earn the team a seed in the national tournament.