Last week ended with serious questions about the fitness of the St. John's basketball club. This week begins with a feeling that the only problem with their team is the conference they call home.
That's what eviscerating the Duke Blue Devils in front of a jam-packed Madison Square Garden can do for a team. St. John's came out with more effort and precision than they've shown in weeks, breaking the Duke press easily for easy shots that helped them to a 21-point lead in the first half.
Duke showed some fight in the second half, but any attempt to cut the lead was met with sustained Red Storm pressure on both ends. That made for a celebratory final few minutes before the final buzzer sounded on a 93-78 win.
Duke was so flat that you'd be inclined to think that the Mr. Krzyzewski's fine young leaders spent too much time out sampling the wares of the big city on Saturday night. Jim Nantz tells us every March that such a notion is foolish, however, so it must just be that St. John's is the superior basketball team. It looked that way every time Dwight Hardy breezed to the hoop for a score and every time Justin Brownlee beat bigger men to rebounds.
Basically, the Red Storm did to the Blue Devils what Georgetown did to them on Wednesday night. That raises the question of how much we can really read into this victory. Impressive as it was, the biggest realization we reached on Sunday was that Coach K's team may just be a paper tiger sitting on top of an inferior heap. If St. John's, the 11th-best team in the Big East, could beat them so thoroughly, what would the Hoyas, UConn or Villanova do to them?
That's why we're exercising some caution about what Saturday's win does to their chances of making the big dance. Obviously, it gives them a major chip to offset losses to Fordham and St. Bonaventure should they be on the bubble, but it doesn't really make you feel like they are going to close out the Big East schedule with a record that gets them too far from that bubble when push comes to shove.
That's a boon for those who feel that the NCAA Tournament, even at 68 teams, is too small. It doesn't do much for a St. John's team that actually has to compete against such a deep and tough conference on a nightly basis. They'll need, at the very least, the same level of effort and execution that they showed on Sunday. It hasn't been there all season and it is hard to expect that it will be there every night for the rest of the campaign. That's not really a knock on Steve Lavin or his team, that's just life in college basketball.
And life in the Big East portion of college basketball is tougher than most. Just ask Duke.