And it’s the tournament St. John’s has talked about going to all season long: The NCAA Tournament. The Big Dance.
The Johnnies qualified for the Tourney by compiling a 20-11 record, including wins over Top 25 teams UConn, Miami, Boston College and Wake Forest.
“I believe we’re worthy. We’ve earned our way in and we’re certainly going to Washington and represent St. John’s and the Big East to the best of our abilities,” said Head Coach Mike Jarvis.
The Johnnies are, to paraphrase that poet laureate Kid Rock, stayin’ in the East, as the ninth seed.
Historically, the 8-9 match-up produces some of the best games of the tournament. This year it should be no different, as the Johnnies are hooking up with the Big Ten regular season champion Wisconsin Badgers (Friday, 7:45 p.m., Channel 2).
If the Red Storm get past Wisconsin, they would likely play No. 1 seed Maryland, who plays Siena in the first round.
All of these teams present a formidable challenge to the Red Storm as they make a run at the National Championship.
Think Notre Dame’s Matt Carroll and David Graves. Now add three more shooters. Having nightmares yet?
If you’re not, it’s a good bet that Jarvis and his staff are. The Johnnies struggle against teams that can shoot well and this team can. Five players shoot better than 30 percent from behind the three-point line, led by junior guard Kirk Penney.
But lest you think that the Badgers (18-12) are just a bunch of shooters. Wisconsin is a tremendous defensive squad, much like the Red Storm. The Badgers allowed only 64.9 points per game this season. Their ability to shut down teams is a major concern for the Red Storm.
“[They are] a tough team. They continue to play the great Wisconsin defense,” Jarvis said. “They are an excellent basketball team. They are big and strong and play great ‘D.’ We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The Badgers like to play a slow-down style of game, and that may be because they are slow. The Badgers cannot allow themselves to get into a footrace, so they force their game down their opponents’ throats, allowing them to keep the score close. Their margin of victory is 2.1 points and they were 5-1 in games decided by five or fewer points.
Along with being slow, the Badgers aren’t a very deep team. If anyone gets into foul trouble, it’s over for Wisconsin.
Player to watch: Kirk Penney, junior. The New Zealand native averages 15.1 points and almost five rebounds per game.
A preseason favorite to contend for the National Championship, Maryland has impressed all season long, finishing with the No. 1 seed in the East.
This may be Gary Williams’ best team during his tenure at College Park. He’s had some very good teams, including last year’s squad, which lost to eventual National Champion Duke.
The Terps (26-4) are led by seniors Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter. At the off guard, Dixon averages 19.3 points, five boards and three assists per game. Baxter is a monster down low. He averages 15 points and eight boards a game.
Dixon and Baxter complement each other so well, it’s impossible to key on one or the other. But the Terps are hardly just Dixon and Baxter.
Chris Wilcox has become a force inside, allowing Baxter more room to operate down low. Steve Blake runs the point for Williams and is one of the best players that no one knows about. He averages about eight points and eight assists per game, and on the defensive end, can lock down his opposite number.
Off the bench, Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle give the Terps size, and Drew Nicholas can spell Dixon when he needs a breather.
Player to Watch: Steve Blake, junior. Blake plays point guard with an “old school” style, a la John Stockton.
Give Siena a hug if you see them. They are going to be fodder for the aforementioned Terps.
Siena (17-18) was fortunate to have the MAAC tournament held on their home court and getting hot at the right time. Dwayne Archbold set a MAAC tourney record with 111 points.