Enter San Man

Defeating Pittsburgh just about locked it up.

After beating Duke, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Georgetown at Madison Square Garden already this season, the men’s basketball team’s win over then-No. 4 Pittsburgh was more than enough for St. John’s to earn back the title of New York’s Team and secure MSG as its home arena.

Throughout the last 10 years, as pseudo-local powers like UConn and Syracuse enjoyed success at MSG and St. John’s relevance in college basketball faded, that distinction got lost somewhere. Apparently, 11 years out of the national polls can do that to a program.

But St. John’s has done more than just win at the Garden this season. For the most part, the Johnnies have dominated there, beating the Blue Devils and Huskies by double-digits and showing its veteran poise against Georgetown and Pitt in games that came down to the final possession.

Madison Square Garden has been filled to the brim this year—even selling out at times—and not just because Pittsburgh and Duke have come to town. All the buzz that surrounded the program prior to the start of the season has been justified, one win at a time.

Last second wins here and there make you a Cinderella, with the college basketball world waiting to see when your chariot turns back into a pumpkin.

But St. John’s has played giantkiller on more than one occasion this season and has run those giants out of the building, playing with the fearlessness and irreverence necessary to re-establish itself as a national contender.

Even more impressive is the fact that they’ve had this kind of success while playing the strongest schedule in the country, with seemingly every match coming against a nationally-ranked opponent. No game has been easy, and each win has been more impressive than the last.

Quite frankly, it’s about damn time. Over the years, St. John’s had become the doormat of the Big East, with teams getting a taste of MSG in running the Johnnies ragged during the regular season then coming back in March to compete for the conference championship.

The Red Storm, for the most part, had to use the visitor’s locker room in their own building and wear their road red jerseys in their home city for their brief stints in the tournament—one that until the conference expanded to including all 16 teams in 2009, St. John’s wasn’t even good enough to make.

The program was always dubbed as one that deserved better despite its struggles, this coming from coaches who would walk right into New York City and poach the area’s talent knowing full well the Johnnies of old couldn’t keep up.

Well, the Johnnies can compete now, and they’re getting some serious payback. Plus, it’s nice seeing opposing coaches scratching their heads at the idea that St. John’s is no longer the pushover it used to be.

The men’s basketball program has blossomed into one the St. John’s community can finally show off, with the transformation from mediocre into a force to be reckoned with happening almost instantaneously—I can probably pinpoint the exact moment this shift took place, when the ball was tipped to start the Red Storm’s Jan. 30 beatdown of then-No. 3 Duke.

As much as New York loves its favorites—see Yankees, New York—it appreciates an underdog it can truly get behind—see Jets, New York. St. John’s has gone from underdog to favorite in the course of the same season.

St. John’s is establishing itself as a real college basketball experience again, with the excitement on campus matching the talent on the floor. See exhibit A: Will Smooth’s “White and Red” remix to Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” a song that has become the anthem of the 2010-11 team and nearly impossible to escape within the St. John’s community.

Change has been rampant at every level of the program, from head coach Steve Lavin’s No. 2 national recruiting class according to ESPN — trailing possibly the nation’s most historic program, Kentucky — to the establishment of “Lavin-wood” in the Red Zone student section to a roster of essentially the same nucleus of players from yesteryear leading the way.

And all that change has come to a head —the bottom line is that people in New York City want to see the St. John’s Red Storm again. They wear their hats and t-shirts around Midtown.

Red Storm wins have also begun to take the place of Spring Training news on ESPN New York’s web site, as well as provide backpage material for the major New York tabloids.

Basketball has become relevant in New York City again, thanks to St. John’s.

So move over Syracuse. Move over Duke, and move over UConn.St. John’s is New York Team once again.