Eye of the Storm

The tough midseason tests continue for St. John's following their bedeviling loss to Duke

Unquestionably talented, Jarvis's club has been nurtured this season with a schedule that appears perfectly constructed for getting a team ready for the postseason.

"It's almost tailor-made for a team in transition that you want to bring along," says Packer of the Red Storm's schedule. "They played Purdue and Stanford early, two teams you have to assume are going to be NCAA tournament teams and maybe even go deep into the tournament. Even though they lost both of those games, it helped their development as a team. Then they've played some teams where they were able to gain some confidence because they were superior in physical ability, so I like the balance of their schedule."

With about a month left to play after this week's tests, Jarvis will have time not only to rehabilitate the mind-set of his club should they falter, but to harness the momentum of a St. John's team if they happen to win themselves into the headlines.

"It's a pretty big task for anyone," says Packer of the St. John's prospects this week. "In this case, I don't think a couple of losses will prevent St. John's from having a good year, but [a couple of wins] could make for a great year."

Indeed, the implications are far-reaching for both the team and the conference this week. Nestled in second place behind Connecticut in the Big East, the relatively inexperienced Red Storm can ill afford to give the undefeated Huskies the mental edge— let alone another win— they would take into the Big East tournament should they roll through the Johnnies this Saturday.

Unlike earlier this season, the Red Storm won't have the benefit of warming up for their big game with overmatched opponents. St. John's faces a schizophrenic Syracuse squad on Wednesday in the Carrier Dome, where the Orangemen are 8-3 this year.

"Once the players get into practice, they'll know we're preparing for Syracuse," said associate head coach Kevin Clark. "You can't allow the loss to Duke to stick in your mind. Once they get in that dome, they'll know you can't go back."

From a certain point of view, the Duke game offered Jarvis and his club a breather— at least from conference play. But not from conference duty.

"The Atlantic Coast Conference this year is a top-heavy league," says Packer. "It does not have the balance it normally projects. So for a St. John's to show that they are more competitive with Duke than any of the six teams in the ACC have shown, I think that bodes well for the Big East teams who may be on the bubble at tournament time. Those teams could say, "Hey, wait a second. Our league is deeper and stronger than another league.' "

Midterms for the Red Storm were made all the more difficult when Grant went down, an injury that opened a hole in the middle of the defense. After watching Duke All-American center Elton Brand essentially set up house under the basket and racked up 16 points, 12 rebounds, and seven blocks, St. John's will have to mix-and-match in the paint against a Syracuse team that averages taller than 6-8 along its front line and a Connecticut club featuring the inconsistent but dangerous Jake Voskuhl, a load at 6-11 and 235 pounds.

"When you don't have your number one post defender, well, a guy like Brand is tough enough as it is," observes Packer. "Connecticut doesn't have [as impressive] an offensive presence on the inside, but I think Connecticut is a team that has great overall balance and probably matches Duke in the depth of that balance."

Short-handed or not, it's time for St. John's to cram those playbooks and sharpen their skills— it's test time.

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