Nine Years Later, Johnnies return to Madness

March Madness is already underway with some brackets hurt by Rick Pitino’s decision to let Morehead State take a three, which beat his Louisville Cardinals- giving the 13th seeded underdogs the first major of upset of the 2011 NCAA Tournament.

Sometimes, that’s how it goes for a Big East school that overachieved during the season, reaching the Big East Final before falling to Uconn and the Bronx’s ownKemba Walker in a memorable conference tournament best known for the Huskies winning five games in five days to become the ultimate champion. No matter what happens the rest of the way for Jim Calhoun’s group, they’ve accomplished something special. It’s amazing to think that they played five straight times and won all five. Now, they are a No.3 seed out West people like to make the Final Four. The question becomes will they show signs of fatigue when they take on pesky Bucknell in a few minutes.

Playing that many games can work against you, which makes you wonder if Louisville was ripe for the picking. Of course, losing top scorer Preston Knowles to an ankle injury had a lot to do with the outcome. But Pitino’s failure to play more aggressive allowed Demonte Harper enough space to drain a deep trey for the upset. Did Louisville get fouled at the end? Even Charles Barkley agreed but also made the point that it would’ve been a terrible call to make after how Morehead State outplayed Louisville. Officials rarely want to be the deciding factor. So, Pitino’s bunch goes home, taking the Big East tourney record of 11 down to 10.

The coach said, ‘Hey, I dreamed about this last night, this exact situation,”’ Harper said. “He said, ‘I know exactly who I’m going to. I’m going to put it right in your hands, Demonte.’ He said, ‘At 6 seconds, I want you to attack and pull up and hit the shot.’ I hit the shot. It feels unreal right now.”

Talk about your ultimate dream scenario coming true. For Princeton, they had similar visions this afternoon against Kentucky, taking them to the buzzer. The Tiger fought back from four down thanks to two tough shots in the final 60 seconds. However, John Calipari put the ball in the hands of freshman Brandon Knight, who prior to the final possession was 0-for-7 from the field. None of that mattered as he made a slithering move to the right and got off a tough runner that coolly banked home with 2.0 left. Princeton used its final timeout and didn’t have a Pete Carrill ’96 miracle in it the way a backdoor bucket shocked defending champ UCLA 43-41.

I think we prepared this whole week to beat these guys, and you know, our team believed that we could do it,” senior center Kareem Maddox explained after his off balance bucket cut it to two. “I mean, I don’t know if there was one moment where the switch kind of flipped, but you know, I just think we knew what kind of team we had and what kind of heart we had, and we knew we could compete.

That’s what makes this tournament so great. These kids believe in each other that mission impossible is possible. It’s how the spunky 12th seeded Richmond Spiders edged No.5 Vanderbilt in the dreaded 5/12 game. One which Vandy had two chances to force overtime but were brutal in turning it over twice with forgettable possessions. In another match up, West Virginia didn’t fall victim to the trap game, holding off Clemson.

This is what you get on Day One of the Big Dance. Forget the four play-in games with the NCAA actually referring to it as Round One. It’s when the field is set at 64 that people start caring unless you’re from one of those schools who snuck in. Of course, Virginia Tech and Colorado will wonder how they didn’t make it along with VCU because someone’s bubble always bursts, usually unfairly. But that’s what you’re dealing with.

For St. John’s, it’s their first appearance since 2002 when a team led by Erick Barkley was a No.2 seed out West only to get picked off by Mark Few and Gonzaga in the Second Round. Many had the Red Storm getting to the Final Four only to see them be life and death to beat No.15 Northern Arizona and never look comfortable against the Zags in a hostile environment. That was a long time ago.

It’s taken nine years for a once proud basketball school to get back into college’s elite. For Norm Roberts who all year, watched Steve Lavin get the most out of his 10 seniors, it has to be bittersweet. It took a while for the former UCLA coach to get it turned around. Following blowout losses to Louisville and Georgetown, it looked like their dream was done. But the Johnnies rose up to shock Duke before a packed house at Madison Square Garden, defeating the No.1 team in the country. That Jan.30 day was the one the most talented senior Dwight Hardy put the team on his back, scoring 26 in a 93-78 win.

From that point, St. John’s was a different team winning 10 of its last 13 for a 21-11 record, including an impressive 12-6 in the deepest conference. Hardy lit up those Huskies for a career high 33, including five triples in an 89-72 rout that was never a contest. They also got 20 and 11 from the tough kid from Pittsburgh, D.J. Kennedy. A four-year player who had a brilliant career as part of a special group who wanted to get it turned around.

As we know, the versatile Kennedy who can get into the lane, distribute and rebound with the best of them, suffered a season-ending torn ACL in the first half of a close quarterfinal loss to Syracuse. Here’s a kid who sacrificed offense for the good of the team under Lavin, becoming a better player. In the beginning, I wondered why some of his games were so low. When you don’t have the benefit of TV due to scheduling, it’s hard to judge. But when they were finally into their tough part against the Big East, I began to understand why. Kennedy was always a very athletic player who could get to the free throw line and be counted on but he also could step out and hit from downtown. He played stellar D and was usually around the rock.

For DJ, it will be tough to watch the rest of thise senior-laden bunch go to another tough environment and take on the Zags in Denver. But his attitude has been tremendous, never questioning why him. Instead, he will be there on the bench next to his teammates, urging them on. An extra voice to inspire roommate Sean Evans, who’s been the best story of this turnaround, going from barely playing to a main part under Lavin. Not bad for a kid who walked on and stuck for all four years. Against the Orange, there was Evans going among the trees for a double/double (11 Pts, 12 Rebs) in a competitive loss to a team that previously embarrassed them.

Hardy got his points (22) and key cogs Justin Brownlee and Paris Horne both stepped up in Kennedy’s absence with the kind of performances Lavin will need if his team wants to stay in past tonight. Gonzaga has a size edge. So, they’ll also need Evans and Justin Burrell to battle for every rebound and loose ball. The real key as super sub Malik Boothe out of Christ The King put it will be staying aggressive. This team has gotten here by pushing the pace, wearing out opponents. They’ll look to press the Zags and attack the basket. Malik Stith will see some increased minutes without Kennedy. Lavin still has plenty of options tonight.

They’ve been a team all year. This isn’t about avenging some loss a different bunch had wearing their fancy jerseys. This is about continuing the transformation into being relevant again. These are still underdogs. Especially minus DJ. It’s a pick ‘em game in a hostile environment. Tonight, we find out if St. John’s is ready for primetime.

Do It For DJ!

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