St. John's has proved itself by winning a string of games against tough opponents. So it may seem a bit odd that the Red Storm's first game as a ranked team in more than a decade comes against the worst team in the Big East.
St. John's will take the court at No. 23 in the poll when faces DePaul at Carnesecca Arena on Wednesday night.The Red Storm (17-9, 9-5 Big East) have moved into the Top 25 for the first time since Nov. 28, 2000, when they were 24th. They also appear to be on course for their first NCAA berth since 2002, based on what they have accomplished against the toughest schedule in the country.Coach Steve Lavin's squad has split 10 matchups with ranked teams, winning the last three over then-No. 3 Duke, then-No. 10 Connecticut and most recently, No. 4 Pittsburgh on Saturday. Dwight Hardy's flip shot with 1.2 seconds left gave the Red Storm a 60-59 victory over the Panthers."I think it's a benchmark of achievement for the senior class and naturally it will be helpful in recruiting with the national exposure," said Lavin of the ranking. "It is empirical evidence that their hard work is paying off."Lavin led UCLA to six NCAA tournaments in seven seasons, including four trips to the round of 16. He's demonstrating some California cool from his West Coast days, with him and his staff all wearing sneakers during the last seven games since the upset of the Blue Devils on Jan. 30 during Coaches vs. Cancer weekend."For the rest of my career I don't anticipate ever going back to a tie or dress shoes ever again," Lavin said. "We're 6-1 with sneakers that started to bring attention to a great cause."Saturday's visit to No. 15 Villanova is St. John's final matchup with a ranked opponent in its last four games. Being a favorite is an unusual role for the Red Storm, whose 10 seniors have matched their highest win total."Being seniors and going through the tough times we had we want to maintain what we have now so there's no letdown," forward Sean Evans said.The underdog role has been familiar to DePaul (7-19, 1-13), which ended a 24-game Big East losing streak with a 79-76 victory at Providence on Thursday. The Blue Demons followed that up by nearly knocking off Villanova before falling 77-75 in overtime Saturday.DePaul held a three-point lead before allowing Corey Fisher's tying 3 with six seconds left in regulation. Jeremiah Kelly had career highs of seven 3-pointers and 25 points for the Blue Demons."We came up short, but we're just proving to people that we can play with anybody in this league," said freshman Moses Morgan, who had a season-high 15 points.The Blue Demons, though, are one of the worst defensive teams in the country, allowing foes to shoot 48.6 percent.The Red Storm have exploited those defensive deficiencies, hitting 49.4 percent from the floor in winning three straight in the series. St. John's rallied from a 16-point halftime deficit for a 90-82 triple-overtime victory in the last meeting March 5, as D.J. Kennedy scored 32 points.