On the Marc

 

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – This team had a lot of people fooled.

Diehard fans, administration, maybe even the players themselves were hypnotized by two big wins. In a matter of five days in January, the St. John’s men’s basketball team knocked off a pair of ranked teams – then-No. 9 Pittsburgh and then-No. 17 Louisville – in convincing fashion. Then the Red Storm went to UConn and took the No. 1 team in the country to the brink and in the next game had a major chance to win against then-No. 9 West Virginia, but fell short.

After all that, people got to talking. Words were uttered, phrases were heard. Things like Big East Tournament, acronyms like NIT. Some even let slip that serendipitous thing: “NCAA Tournament.”

As Chris Rock says: Slow down.

This team is not quite ready for primetime, as it proved rather emphatically in an 81-73 loss to Providence on Saturday night at the Dunkin Donuts Center. The loss is a dangerous one. It might have even been the closest thing there is to a must-win in the beginning of February.

St. John’s is the same team that looked flaccid in a loss to Marist at MSG this year, the same team that up-chucked a 20-point lead at Seton Hall only to lose in overtime. Coach Norm Roberts keeps talking about “identity,” but it’s hard to say he even knows what team will show up in a given game. His team looked liked the lead character in the movie Memento – a little forgetful.

And it’s not Roberts’ fault. His coaching schemes are improved. The team’s offense is getting better; he is making the most of the players’ talents. Proof is in six players scoring in double figures against Providence, but it wasn’t like they were getting tired playing defense or anything.

He still is working with sub par talent though. Plus, strangely, St. John’s at its best has proved it can compete with any team in the conference.

“Norm is doing a great job with that group,” Providence coach Tim Welsh said.

But it’s been the team’s lack of intensity that has lost them the last three games. It’s odd, but St. John’s could have won every one of those last four games, some it definitely should have won. In the new 16-team Big East every game has been a fight, most contests have been close.

“It’s a tough league,” Roberts said. “You just have to suck it up and be tough.”

The Johnnies look lost at the end of games and have not been as tough as they’ve needed to be lately.

There is now a four-way tie for the 12th spot in the Big East standings – you know, the last spot that earns a trip to Madison Square Garden for the conference tournament.

The trip wouldn’t be a long one for the Johnnies. But in terms of importance, it’s No. 1.

At this point, after four straight losses, St. John’s honestly can’t afford to think about anything more than the Big East Tournament. I know Roberts is not.

The tie includes Rutgers, Providence and Louisville. The Red Storm owns the tiebreaker against the aforementioned Cardinals, but the loss to the Friars this weekend gives them the tiebreaker over the Johnnies.

St. John’s still has to play Rutgers twice – including the regular season finale at Carnesecca Arena on March 5.

The rest of the schedule doesn’t look too promising either.

Realistically, the Red Storm will probably have to win four of its last seven games to stay out of the bottom four of the best conference in the nation.

If the team does that, it’ll be 14-13 and will most likely earn an NIT berth, as well. But that is a huge if. Quite a far cry from the delusions of grandeur people were having only a few weeks ago.

“I’m not more disappointed [than usual],” said Roberts after the Providence loss. “I’m frustrated because we’re not there yet. We’re close, but we’re not there yet.”