Just over two weeks ago, so much seemed possible for St. Johns.
Back then, St. Johns was 10-2, and had matched the programs second-best start of the past 19 years, reaching double-digit wins more than a month earlier than last seasons team had. The defense was spectacular, but the shooting was still inconsistent, leaving plenty of room for Chris Mullins team to look even better in the Big East.
Then came a 22-point home loss to sixth-place Providence. Even worse was a 17-point home loss to ninth-place DePaul, followed by another home loss to rebuilding Georgetown.
For the third time in the past five years, the Red Storm opened 0-5 in conference play.
Im neither surprised nor upset, Mullin said after Tuesdays loss to the Hoyas. Im not concerned about predictions and expectations. The only thing thats going to distract us or keep us down is a negative mindset. We just have to keep competing and keep working hard. Things will turn for us.
Its hard to imagine when.
Just days after announcing second-leading scorer Marcus LoVett will be out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee, last-place St. Johns (10-7, 0-5) will look to pull its biggest upset in years, when No. 1 Villanova (15-1, 3-1) comes to Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. The Red Storm then travel to No. 10 Xavier (15-3, 3-2) Wednesday.
The Red Storm have lost seven straight meetings with the Wildcats by double digits they lost three times last season, including a 108-67 massacre in the Big East Tournament and St. Johns hasnt defeated Villanova in nearly seven years. Led by Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges both named to the Wooden Award midseason Top 25 list Villanova is coming off a 24-point win over Xavier, and has gone 5-0 at the Garden over the past two seasons.
St. Johns hasnt beaten the top-ranked team in the nation since 1985, when Mullin led them past Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas.
Theyre No. 1 in the country for good reason, Mullin said of the Wildcats. To me, the amazing thing about Villanova is theyre so fundamental, they do it so well, that they become elite. A lot of teams have outstanding speed or something else, but [Villanova] is just a solid, fundamental, well-oiled machine. You have to be prepared for that, and not let them overpower you. They play for 40 minutes and beyond if they have to.
Though St. Johns hasnt secured a notable win yet this season, the Red Storm have played some of their best games against their toughest opponents.
The outcome against No. 11 Arizona State was unclear until the final minutes, as were losses to No. 13 Seton Hall and No. 25 Creighton.
Theyve lost some close games without [LoVett], but have been right there at the end in a position to win, Villanova coach Jay Wright said. I think they are as dangerous a team as there is in our conference.
Nine teams are making a better case right now.