St. John's hasn't had a number next to their name since November 28th, 2000, until Monday February 21st, 2011, that is. The Johnnies are back among America's top programs, and in the last few weeks, they are playing some of the best ball of their season.
This is a tremendously experienced team, with more senior players than I think I can ever remember seeing on a single basketball team. The team that Rick Pitino picked to win the Big East title this season is 18-9 on the season and ahead of Villanova in the conference this season at 10-5. They Johnnies are also on a five-game winning streak which saw them knock off two top-10 opponents in the Garden and most-recently blow-out DePaul at the tiny Carnesecca Arena.
Dwight Hardy has been key to St. John's success this season. The senior guard has lead the scoring with 17.3 points per game, including 10 games with 20 points or more. He has been the starting point guard since taking over for Malik Boothe early this season.
The Johnnies' two other double-digit scorers this season are senior forward Justin Brownlee, who averages 12.1 ppg as well as 5.1 rebounds, and senior (surprise!) forward D.J. Kennedy, who scores 10.5 ppg and adds 5.7 rebounds as well.
While Hardy is the starter at point guard, senior Malik Boothe has had a very strong run over his last four games, accruing 18 assists and only 4 turnovers. Hardy is far more likely to turn it over, particularly in that four-game stretch, where he had 8 assists and 9 turnovers. If the Villanova defense wants to get stops, putting pressure on Hardy might be the way to do it.
This is a strong defensive team that is adept at forcing turnovers and is capable of executing at a high energy level that must be matched or exceeded from tip-off. As Oliver Purnell said in his post-game presser, "Give St. John's all the credit in the world. They are playing really good basketball and there are no signs of a letup, something I would have liked to see."
Most of the Johnnies' most "braggable" wins have come at home. Madison Square Garden has been as good a home-court advantage for St. Johns as Carnesecca Arena itself.
That said, St. Johns has proven that they can beat just about anyone this year. On the flipside, with a home loss to St. Bonaventure and a loss at local rival Fordham on their record as well, they have also proven that they can lose to just about anyone as well.
If Villanova comes out and plays with an appropriate level of intensity on Saturday afternoon, they should at least be able to count on the defense to keep them in this game. If the 'Cats want to score a truly big win at home, they will need their shots to fall in on offense. Hopefully the team played some H-O-R-S-E this week, because another night like Monday could prove disastrous for this team's confidence.
The game will tip-off at 2:00pm from the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Television coverage will be available nationally on ESPN.