St. John's has reached heights that would have seemed unimaginable just a year ago. Not only is Steve Lavin's team a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament, they're also ranked in the top 25 and playing late into the week at the Big East tournament. Best of all the Red Storm is apparently now permitted to travel, step out of bounds, and fire the ball into the stands -- all with the refs' blessing. Even LeBron can't say that.
This is pretty heady stuff for a program that entered the season having won just 17 of its last 54 Big East games. But before we book this team for a berth in the Final Four, I have a question. Should we have seen this coming?
Not to plug our College Basketball Prospectus book one last time, but here's what we said about the Johnnies last November:
St. John's will feature basically the same nucleus they've had for a couple seasons now, so we should be able to extrapolate from the past two years and know exactly what's going to happen in 2011, right? OK, right. Here's exactly what will happen. The Red Storm will improve on both sides of the ball for a third consecutive year, reaching a point where they both score and allow about a point per trip in Big East play.
What bright young people those Prospectus folks are! Yes, must remember to keep my eye on them. It turns out that this season St. John's scored 1.02 points per possession in conference play, while allowing opponents to record exactly one point per trip. Under first-year head coach Steve Lavin, the Red Storm improved their in-conference performance by 0.07 points per possession over the previous season.
Know what? In 2009-10 under last-year head coach Norm Roberts, the Red Storm improved their in-conference performance by...0.07 points per possession over the previous season. The trend line for improvement at St. John's has been rock-steady now for three years. Changing coaches didn't change the rate of improvement in the slightest.
Give Lavin credit. He knew he was stepping into a situation that any new coach would love. Lavin inherited a roster featuring no fewer than nine seniors. Then again the new guy was brought in not only to coach this group of seniors but also, and most crucially, to recruit the next generation of Red Storm players. By all accounts Lavin has succeeded magnificently on the recruiting trail.
St. John's is undoubtedly on the rise as a program, and Lavin deserves 100 percent of the credit for the bright future that lies before the Red Storm. But the Johnnies' success in the present day is clearly a product not only of Lavin's coaching but also of Roberts' recruiting.
We've seen this before. In 2008 Travis Ford inherited a veteran roster at Oklahoma State that had just improved its in-conference performance by 0.08 points per possession over the previous year. In Ford's first season the Cowboys improved by another 0.03 points per trip in Big 12 play and went to their first NCAA tournament in four years. As a result the coach was widely hailed for bringing "a new mentality" to Stillwater. Moral of the story: If you want to be widely hailed for bringing a new mentality to your program, make sure the roster has plenty of returning minutes.
Then again if St. John's really does get to Houston, and Dwight Hardy thinks they can, Lavin will not only deserve some serious kudos, he'll earn my consideration for national coach of the year. Among recent Final Four teams, the record for lowest scoring margin in major-conference play stands at 0.08 (Michigan State, 2010). Conversely, we've seen that the Red Storm outscored the Big East this year by just 0.02 points per trip. That doesn't mean Hardy and company absolutely won't get to Houston. It can happen. Anything can happen. (I saw Northern Iowa beat Kansas, for goodness sake.) It just means it would be record-setting.
The Johnnies are more than just a 12-6 Big East team. They're a 12-6 Big East team with their conference's sixth-best defense and its 11th-best offense. Seen against the backdrop of recent St. John's history, those numbers, particularly the 12-6 record, sum up to good news. Make that great news. But let's also recognize how likely it was that the Red Storm would improve this year -- and how special it will be if this team goes as far as Dwight Hardy thinks they can.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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