By Anthony Bosco
It’s not often you get to see a top-flight men’s college basketball team get undressed so publicly as the Red Storm was Sunday afternoon, taking a literal spanking by the club many expect to be crowned national champions come tournament time — the Duke Blue Devils.
Duke not only won the game, they erased any and all doubt, at least in my opinion, that head coach Mike Krzyzewski is an alien being from another world, a world orbiting a basketball.
What happened Sunday in North Carolina was simply not human. I know St. John’s is a streaky team that has been consistent all year in its inconsistency. But what happened this weekend — a 97-55 debacle at Cameron Indoor Stadium — went way beyond and it had everything to do with the Blue Devils. This was not just another typical Red Storm performance.
St. John’s actually had me fooled during the early going of the game, which saw the Johnnies playing inspired basketball through the opening minutes. The Red Storm held two separate seven-point leads as the team ran up and down the court on the nation’s No. 3-ranked team before a raucous and partisan hometown crowd.
And just as St. John’s seemed poised to give Duke a run for its money — as it did three and two seasons ago, the first an overtime loss and the second a last-second win at Cameron — the roof caved in. Not literally, mind you, but it might as well have.
It was difficult to watch at times. Duke, like Muhammad Ali had against George Foreman in Zaire, stopped playing possum and quickly turned the game around. Every basket resounded like a haymaker right hand from the champ, pummeling the upstart team from Queens into submission.
But there was no knockout blow here, no way to stop the massacre. Head coach Mike Jarvis could not get his troops to respond and the battering continued and continued.
When Jason Williams hit a three-pointer with two seconds left in the first half, Duke’s lead was stretched to 27 points, capping a 35-1 run to end the first half. The game may have only been at its midway point, but the remaining 20 minutes were just for show. St. John’s had nothing, no chance at all to get back into the game and it didn’t seem like they had any fight left anyway.
But how can you blame them. If the Red Storm phoned in the second half Sunday, they did it against — arguably — the best team in the country when the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The bottom line was that Duke was better, not just by a little, but by a lot, and the St. John’s players knew it, or so it seemed.
The Blue Devils have been the most dominant men’s college basketball team of the past decade and with good reason. Coach K has upped the ante nationwide when it comes to success on the Division I level. No only does he manage to recruit the best players in the country year in and year out, he also manages to keep the majority of those players in school for four seasons. It’s frightening.
This year he has four players any coach would die for — Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Carlos Boozer and Chris Duhon. To have four players of such quality in one starting line-up is downright criminal. That the team has actually lost two ACC games this year and may end up losing the conference crown is amazing in and of itself.
St. John’s simply isn’t in Duke’s class. I knew that as did everyone else I spoke with about the game. But that didn’t mean the Red Storm couldn’t play up to the challenge and maybe shock a few people by making a game of it.
The team went into Cameron thinking it was a no-lose situation. With 18 wins already, a winning conference record and an NCAA bid now more likely than not, St. John’s merely had to show up, play respectably and come home with what everyone expected — the team’s ninth loss.
But I don’t know if such a loss — the 42-point variety — can be overcome in such a short span of time. St. John’s was slated to play Notre Dame Wednesday, followed by a date with Villanova Sunday. Two wins would give St. John’s 20 victories, something that, in years past, has been as good as an automatic bid for Big East schools.
This year, however, the conference may produce as many as seven 20-win teams, some which are locks for the tournament, like Pittsburgh, Miami, Connecticut and Syracuse. Sweeping the finals two games of the season would go a long way for St. John’s, but even then nothing is guaranteed until selection day.
Losing the way St. John’s did Sunday — so handily that the network televising the game nationally cutaway to another game midway through the second half — may stick with some people and hamper the team’s chances of making the big dance.
I hope so. Though I knew St. John’s would need a miracle to win Sunday, I also believe the team is lot better than what it showed. The Red Storm has flaws, no doubt about it, but they also play great defense and have a player n Marcus Hatten who I think can hang with any guard in the country.
If they can bounce back from the defeat, the NCAA Tournament is still obtainable. But that’s a big if.
Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.