St. John’s returns to NCAA tournament

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It took nine years – and 66 teams being called on Sunday – but St. John’s has finally returned to the big dance.

With each accomplishment this season the Johnnies started to creep back into the national spotlight; beating six ranked teams, cracking the top 25 and earning a bye and reaching the Big East tournament’s quarterfinals. But Sunday marked the season’s coronation as St. John’s earned a number six-seed in the NCAA tournament. Though, not without a brief scare.

St. John’s was assured of an at-large bid based on the strength of their season – or as assured as a team can be when their fate is in the hand of the tournament’s selection committee.

As each line in the bracket was filled with a different school and with the completion of three regions, St. John’s was not called. With 14 teams named in the final bracket, two more teams were left to be called.

“It was like a long drum roll,” said senior Justin Burrell. “We didn’t ever think it was going to end.”

The tension in the room at Smith & Wollensky’s Steakhouse in Manhattan where St. John’s (21-11) was watching the selection show in front of CBS cameras was finally broken when they were the penultimate name called to face 11-seeded Gonzaga (22-9).

“They can call us first or last, as long as they call us,” said senior Sean Evans who has waited four years for this moment. Most of the team has. The Johnnies have nine active seniors who entered St. John’s during one of the darkest periods the men’s basketball team has seen.

“Three years before this, actually watching [the selection show] and knowing your name isn’t going to be called is the best build up for this,” said Burrell.

“It was better than I dreamed of,” added Evans.

Now, the team heads to Denver for a match-up with Gonzaga, who has had a very different recent tournament experience from St. John’s. This is their 13th consecutive appearance, even defeating the Johnnies in the 2000 tournament.

In Steve Lavin’s seventh trip to the tournament he is looking to lead the Johnnies to their first tournament victory since that 2000 tournament.

If St. John’s, one of the Big East’s record 11 tournament teams, can navigate past the Zags, they have a potential match-up with the nation’s leading scorer, Jimmer Fredette, and the BYU Cougars on Saturday.

But their first test comes Thursday night at 9:45 against the Bulldogs of Gonzaga.

Coach Steve Lavin mentioned the resolve of the seniors, their experience and the rigorous Big East schedule they played this year has been the best preparation for the tournament – a tournament where he could foresee the Johnnies making a run.

“The cohesive brand of basketball we play will put us in position to be a really tough out in the postseason.”