A resurgent St. John's Red Storm returns to the NCAA Tournament Thursday after an eight-year hiatus carrying the Southeast Region's sixth seed for a second-round matchup with perennial postseason performer and 11-seed Gonzaga at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
St. John's returned to prominence in 2010-11 despite a few rough patches along the way to post a 12-6 mark in the vaunted Big East Conference, which sent a record 11 teams to this year's NCAAs. The Red Storm had their first 20-win season since the 2002-03 campaign and shook up the college basketball landscape time and time again by notching six wins against top-25 teams and four versus top-10 competition. St. John's particularly turned it on in the second half, winning 10 of its last 13 games before being dealt a 79-73 loss to Syracuse in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament as the fifth seed. This will be the Red Storm's 27th appearance in the NCAA Tournament with a respectable 27-28 ledger to show for it. St. John's figures to be primed for any opponent this postseason after dismissing the likes of West Virginia, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Duke, UConn, Cincinnati, Marquette, Pittsburgh and Villanova during the regular season. The successful campaign also marks a return to the postseason for first-year head coach Steve Lavin, who guided UCLA to six tournament appearances in seven years in LA.
Gonzaga claimed a 13th consecutive NCAA Tournament berth in 2011 after defeating Saint Mary's for the West Coast Conference tourney crown as a two seed. However, the Bulldogs shared the regular-season title with the Gaels to secure a record-11th consecutive WCC championship, the longest active streak of its kind in the nation and the second-best streak all-time among the Division I ranks. It's the Zags' 14th overall appearance in the Big Dance where they've made a name for themselves in just a short time since their initial outing in 1999. Gonzaga has amassed a 15-13 record in that time, one Elite Eight appearance (1999) and five trips to the Sweet Sixteen. The Bulldogs' most recent foray into the field came as an eight seed last year where they downed Florida State before falling to regional top seed Syracuse. Gonzaga has won its opening-round matchup in 9-of-13 NCAA Tournament trips. The Zags played a tough non-conference schedule to start out the year, facing seven teams in this year's field and coming away with just one win in those contests (Marquette). The losses came to San Diego State, Kansas State, Illinois, Notre Dame, Xavier and Memphis.
These two teams have met on the hardwood on just three previous occasions, and once in the NCAA Tournament -- an 82-76 win by the Zags in the second round of the 2000 edition. The last meeting came in the 2001 Great Alaska Shootout, which the Bulldogs took by a 65-58 score. St. John's has to reach all the way back to 1960 for its lone win in the series.
The Bulldogs get contributions from a number of different sources starting with Steven Gray, who tops the roster at 13.8 points per game, leads in assists with 3.9 per game and has dropped a team-high 65 three-pointers while shooting 36.3 percent from beyond. Robert Sacre patrols the paint and provides 12.5 points per game to go with a team-leading 6.2 rebounds and 62 blocks. Elias Harris gives Gonzaga three double-figure scoring threats with a solid 12.1 ppg average while standing second to Sacre at 5.9 boards per contest. The Zags hold a healthy plus-5.9 margin on the glass, ranking 21st in the country, and slide in with the nation's 22nd-ranked scoring offense at 76.7 ppg. The defense is another strong point, having led the WCC in holding clubs to 65.1 ppg, while gaining national attention in both field-goal percentage (47.9) and free-throw percentage (75.9) where they stand 11th and 16th, respectively. Also in the Zags' favor is a defensive field-goal percentage that holds teams under 40.0 percent (39.8), a total that stands 22nd in the country.
The senior duo of Dwight Hardy and Justin Brownlee led a renaissance of sorts for the Red Storm this season. Hardy's 18.0 points per game ranked fourth in the Big East while adding a team-high 59 three-pointers on 35.1 percent shooting. Brownlee checks in at 12.2 ppg on 49.5 percent shooting with 5.3 rebounds while fellow senior D.J. Kennedy provided a big boost with 10.7 ppg and a team-leading 5.6 boards. To rank anywhere of note in a stacked conference like the Big East is saying something, so the Red Storm's rather efficient totals for the season get lost in the mix. Two that stand out for opposite reasons are a league-leading plus-3.66 turnover margin and a 14th- placed rebounding margin (minus-1.1) with the Storm securing only 32.8 caroms per contest. St. John's offense puts up a healthy 70.1 ppg, but that leaves the club just 10th in the Big East. Likewise, the defense permits a relatively acceptable 66.4 ppg to rank 12th in-conference. Better than average showings in free-throw percentage (71.1, fifth) and field-goal percentage (45.5, sixth) help the Red Storm's cause.
This matchup could shape up as one of the best of the second round with both teams playing at a high level of late. Gonzaga comes in on a nine-game win streak and really established itself late in the season to create the right mindset for another tournament run. St. John's lacks nothing in talent and confidence going into Thursday, but the postseason is new territory for this particular squad, and in a tight game, experience can definitely play a factor.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Gonzaga 70, St. John's 68