St. John’s Facing ‘Identity’ Crisis and Long Odds in Bid to Reach NCAA Tournament

NEW YORK -- The sobering fact for the St. John’s basketball team and its fans is this.

No Big East team has started 0-3 in league play and gone on to make the NCAA Tournament since Seton Hall during the 1993-94 season.

That was 20 years ago.

So after the Johnnies dropped to 0-3 in the Big East following their 74-67 loss to No. 8 Villanova at Madison Square Garden, it seems fair to wonder if this team has any legitimate shot of regrouping to make the Big Dance in a year they were widely expected to do so.

“As you know, my goal is just to get our team to play the best basketball come March,” coach Steve Lavin said in a Garden hallway following the game. “That goal doesn’t change, that objective doesn’t change.”

In defense of his team, Lavin said that the Johnnies played arguably the toughest schedule in the league to open Big East play — at Xavier, at Georgetown and home to Villanova.

“We definitely have played as tough a schedule as anybody in the Big East,” Lavin said. “Schedule-wise, things will balance themselves out.”

That may be, but again, history is not on their side.

Perhaps of more significance is that JaKarr Sampson, arguably the team’s best player, appeared to hint at a collective team identity crisis with his first answer to a question about the team’s various lineup changes coming into the game.

“We’re just trying to find our identity,” Sampson said after going for 10 points and nine rebounds. “We want to be a tough team, a team that plays with emotion. You saw the Georgetown game, we came in with no emotion, no energy at all and that’s not us. That’s not St. John’s.

“So this game we played with a lot of energy, a lot of emotion, and whenever you do that you always give yourself a chance to win. You might not win, but you always give yourself a chance to win and compete.”

Later, Sampson was asked to amplify his answer about the team lacking an identity and why that was the case at this point of the season.

He paused, and said, “That’ a tough question. You gotta save that for Coach Lav.”

Lavin was asked in the hallway whether the team still hadn’t figured out its identity, and the coach said, “What do you mean?”

When a reporter replied that Sampson had mentioned the issue, Lavin said, “Someone asked JaKarr about our identity.”

The reporter replied that Sampson had volunteered the identity answer in his first question in the press conference before being asked to amplify it later.

“You’re wrong again,” Lavin said before concluding the meeting with reporters.

Whether it’s an identity crisis or just a matter of a tough early schedule, the bottom line is this.

There were high hopes for St. John’s coming into this season. At least one Big East coach said before the season the Johnnies were the most talented team in the league.

With Sampson, Rysheed Jordan, D’Angelo Harrison and Chris Obekpa anchoring the core, it’s hard to argue with that analysis.

While there is still time to turn things around, the Johnnies certainly didn’t expect to find themselves at 0-3.

“Of course I’m surprised,” Sampson said. “I expect to be 3-0. I know my team expects to be 3-0.

“If we just go out there and play with energy and play with heart, that gives us a chance to be in any game and ultimately win it.”

For now, the Johnnies are in dire need of some wins beginning Tuesday at DePaul.

Then they will have to repeat some rare history to salvage a chance at the Big Dance.

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