When you watch St. John’s finish a week-long road trip by completing a season sweep of No. 10 Marquette — marking the Golden Eagles’ lone home loss of the season — an NCAA Tournament berth seems certain. When you see the Red Storm get pushed around at home and outworked by an underwhelming squad from Providence, Selection Sunday seems destined for disappointment.
“Sometimes it’s perplexing,” coach Chris Mullin said of the team’s effort in recent performances. “Energy and passion, and all that, you hope it’s there every night, and obviously it’s not with us. I’m not quite sure how you coach that.
“Playing with energy is a talent. I know a lot of talented players who don’t move on. Playing hard, that’s a talent. Being locked in mentally is a talent. And these guys, at this age, are still learning how to do that every day.”
Coming off a season-worst 56-point performance against the Friars, St. John’s (17-7, 5-6) returns to Carnesecca Arena on Tuesday night to face Butler (14-10, 5-6) in a key battle between potential NCAA bubble teams.
Though St. John’s is 10-1 in Queens this season — the lone loss coming to DePaul, without Shamorie Ponds — and second-leading scorer Mustapha Heron (knee) is expected to return after missing the most recent loss, the Red Storm haven’t beaten any team besides Marquette or Creighton in the past five weeks, falling to the six other opponents they’ve faced.
One loss came at Butler. St. John’s trailed by 22 and cut the lead to four in the final minute before losing 80-71.
“We gotta come out and play with that energy from the jump,” senior Marvin Clark II said. “If we play with that energy from the jump, we’re a hard team to beat. I don’t think too many teams can play with us when we’re playing full tilt.”
That talent has never been in question. And by now, St. John’s knows it isn’t the answer.
“We have more talent, but talent doesn’t go out and win you games,” Clark said. “The mindset that [Butler] takes and the approach they take to every game is what wins you games. Butler is a well-coached team. They’re gonna play hard and do whatever they have to do to win. That’s what has been instilled into them.”
For now, St. John’s doesn’t discuss what it hopes will come in March. There is enough to worry about today.
“We try not to mention it. We don’t want to think too far ahead,” Clark said. “Until we prove we can lock in and focus and be ready to play game after game after game. … If we do that, we know that our chances of going dancing go up significantly.”