St. John's needs win over rival Seton Hall to keep NCAA tourney hopes alive

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julian champagnie, mike anderson, posh alexander, st. john's red storm

Mike Anderson, Julian Champagnie (top right) and Posh Alexander Jason Szenes (2); Robert Sabo

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No more excuses. No more talk of all the new players. No more, “it’s early,” platitudes.

St. John’s season has to turn Saturday. This must be the starting point. If not, it may never happen.

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The Red Storm must beat Seton Hall at the Garden. They must start to show this frustrated, beaten-down fan base it wasn’t wrong to have such high hopes for this season. It’s beyond time.

This is as must-win as it gets in January.

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St. John’s (10-6, 2-3 Big East) is 0-5 in Quad 1 games. It doesn’t even have a Quad 2 win. The Red Storm, picked to finish fourth in the Big East by the league’s coaches and expected to go dancing, don’t have a résumé. They are ranked 103 in the NET rankings, below the likes of New Mexico State, South Dakota State and Santa Clara.

A loss Saturday could mean an extended losing streak on the horizon. Up next is a trip to Seton Hall’s tiny Walsh Gymnasium on Monday and a visit to 11th-ranked Villanova on Jan. 29. The Red Storm will be huge underdogs in both contests. They are winless in four games on the road this season. With a loss to the Pirates, a 2-3 league mark could easily become 2-6. That, simply, cannot happen.

While St. John’s started 1-5 in league play last season, and rallied to play its way into the NCAA Tournament picture before losses to DePaul and Butler ruined its chances, it can’t count on a similar run this time. The Big East is much better this season. Road games are more difficult to win, since those contests now include packed arenas. And, even with that streak last season, St. John’s still didn’t net a tournament bid — and that was the baseline of expectations this winter.

julian champagnie, mike anderson, posh alexander, st. john's red storm

St. John’s Aaron Wheeler goes up for a shot during a recent game.

Robert Sabo

The Red Storm’s 23-point loss to Creighton on Wednesday was reminiscent of the underwhelming and disappointing non-conference season when they started slowly and frequently dug themselves into early deficits. They clearly weren’t ready to play. They couldn’t defend. They took poor shots. And they were hammered on the glass. It was on everyone, from coach Mike Anderson on down.

Anderson made a major mistake by not shaking up his lineup at halftime, as he has done on a few occasions this year. His team was down 15 and needed a jolt. Aaron Wheeler was by far his best player, but he was on the bench to open the second half while Joel Soriano — who was a whopping minus-19 in eight minutes during the first half — started. Creighton quickly put the game away by opening with a 17-5 run. I’m not saying St. John’s would have come back to win, or even would have been more competitive, if Anderson had changed his starters. But a message needed to be sent: This isn’t acceptable.

I fully expect Anderson to alter his lineup on Saturday. Wheeler, a 6-foot-9 forward who has scored in double figures in four straight games, has to start. He’s shooting the ball well, he stretches the floor and he is a versatile defender who blocks shots. They should play small against the bigger and more physical Seton Hall. Make the Pirates adjust. Force shot-blocking dynamo Ike Obiagu to defend Wheeler on the perimeter. Spread the floor and create driving lanes.

That may sound desperate, but St. John’s has to be desperate. The Red Storm must play with desperation and Anderson must coach with desperation. They must treat Saturday as if the season is on the line.

This team needs a jolt of confidence, a reason to believe in itself. It has to start beating quality teams and stacking noteworthy wins. If not, the only avenue to the NCAA Tournament would be a miraculous Big East Tournament title for a program that hasn’t reached the conference semifinals since winning the tourney in 2000. That was also the last time St. John’s won an NCAA Tournament game.

There were realistic hopes that the streak could get snapped this year. It seems silly now, considering this team’s underperformance through 16 games. Instead, this year feels like the 2013-14 campaign, when sky-high expectations of a Sweet 16 run were replaced by the depressing result of an NIT appearance.

But it’s not too late for this season to flip. I still believe there is an NCAA Tournament in there somewhere. That co-stars Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander can carry this team to March Madness.

For that to happen, however, it must begin Saturday against Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden.

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