St. John's Basketball

St. John’s Red Storm: Importance of Saturday’s matchup with Xavier

03/09/2019
Ricky Keeler

With St. John’s ending the regular season Saturday against Xavier, we look at the importance of this game going forward.

Ricky Keeler

It has been a roller coaster Big East conference season for the St. John’s Red Storm. It concludes Saturday night at the CINTAS Center when they take on the Xavier Musketeers (5:00 p.m ET, FOX). It is a rematch of the game that took place at Carnesecca Arena on Feb. 28 when Xavier routed St. John’s, 84-73.

For the Red Storm, this is a huge game for their hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid and for their chances at making a deep run in the Big East Tournament. Right now, St. John’s is in a five-way tie for third place in the conference with an 8-9 record (Xavier included). Yes, you read that right. That’s how crazy the conference slate has been.

Despite St. John’s losing three of their last four games, they still have a chance for the three seed in the Big East Tournament. As Zach Braziller of the New York Post pointed out on Wednesday, all the Red Storm have to do is win on Saturday night to secure the three seed due to their edge in tiebreakers:

From a Big East Tournament perspective, having the three seed would be big and could potentially lead to the Johnnies cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden. For one, it would set up a potential Friday night semifinal against Marquette, who St. John’s has beaten twice already this season. Plus, the Golden Eagles have lost three straight games. They head into their season finale against Georgetown on Saturday.

While the three seed is the highest St. John’s can climb, there is a chance they can fall into the dreaded first round on Wednesday, which would mean they would probably need two wins in the Big East Tournament to feel safe.

For the Red Storm to fall into Wednesday, one scenario (per bball.notnothing.net) would be that they lose, DePaul beats Creighton, and Butler defeats Providence. St. John’s would lose the tiebreaker to both of those teams and play the Friars on Wednesday, who they have lost to twice this year.

The second reason concerns the team’s health. The three seed in the Big East tourney would play their quarterfinal game last on Thursday night, which usually takes place around 9:30 or 10 p.m. With Mustapha Heron battling a knee injury, any long period of rest can only help St. John’s going forward.

As for the big picture involving the NCAA Tournament, Joe Lunardi of ESPN and Jerry Palm of CBS Sports have the Red Storm as a 10 seed. Meanwhile, Howie Schwab of FOX Sports has them as an 11 seed.

The point is that the Red Storm still have their fate in their own hands, but barely. If they lose both Saturday and in their first game in the Big East Tournament, the only NCAA Tournament hope you might have is a First Four trip to Dayton. That’s if they even make the tourney at all. Yes, they have five Quadrant 1 wins, but a win over Xavier would go a long way in easing the worries on Selection Sunday.

When you take a look back at that first matchup, the Musketeers dominated on the glass as they won the rebounding margin by 16 (38-22), had 14 offensive rebounds, and they shot 51 percent from the floor. To be specific, their starting forwards combined to make 16 of their 30 shot attempts, including 31 points from Naji Marshall.

Now, St. John’s did force 16 turnovers and got 29 points off of those mistakes. However, 26 of their 61 shot attempts were from beyond the arc. You could make the argument that is why Xavier took 28 more free throws than the Johnnies. If the Red Storm can attack the basket more with Heron probably playing in this game, it could lead to a more efficient shooting day.

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The offense hasn’t been the major issue for St. John’s. The defense has been the culprit in recent weeks. This is a team that has given up over 80 points in each of the last two games and they are coming off allowing 92 points in a loss to DePaul.

Since Chris Mullin took over as St. John’s head coach, the Red Storm have not defeated Xavier in the CINTAS Center. Their last win in Ohio came on Feb. 14, 2015. While the Musketeers were defeated by Butler on Tuesday, they have won five of their last six games under first-year head coach Travis Steele.

For Shamorie Ponds and company, a win on Saturday would allow St. John’s to end the regular season on a positive note and gain momentum heading into Madison Square Garden.

Meanwhile, a loss would continue the downward spiral the team has been on and would put a great amount of pressure on the team to have a deep run in the conference tournament. There will be pressure since the conference is not expected to get more than four teams into the NCAAs.

In a wide-open Big East, outside of Marquette and Villanova, every game is critical for these teams on the bubble. On Saturday, St. John’s needs to make sure that they treat this game like an NCAA Tournament game. A .500 conference record won’t get you in the Big Dance necessarily, but it would make the most of what has been an inconsistent Big East season.

UPDATE:

St. John’s will be without forward Sedee Keita according to the New York Post’s Zach Braziller.

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