Men’s Big East Notebook

St. John’s picking up steam

The St. John’s Red Storm have failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament every year since 2002, but a strong showing this week may have vaulted them back in.

Coach Steve Lavin’s crew dismantled a crumbling Connecticut team, 89-72, at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, before defeating Cincinnati 59-57 on Sunday in a huge “bubble watch” game.

The pair of wins now puts them in eighth place in the Big East standings, an important position considering the top eight teams receive byes in the first round of the conference tournament, with the top four teams receiving double-byes.

Leading the way for the Red Storm was senior Dwight Hardy, who averaged 25.5 points in the team’s wins, including a career-high 33 against junior guard Kemba Walker and Connecticut.

The senior guard, a former teammate of Marquette’s senior guard Dwight Buycks at Indian Hills Community College, leads the team at 16.6 points per game while playing a team-high 33.3 minutes a night.

Fellow senior Justin Brownlee, who also came in a year ago from the junior college ranks, has also picked up his game for the Red Storm (15-9, 7-5 Big East). The forward averages 12.5 points while shooting 49 percent from the field.

That senior leadership, Lavin’s coaching experience and the Red Storm’s ability to play with any team in the country could make them a tough out come March.

Big East POY up for grabs

Kemba Walker has rightfully received plenty of attention as a potential national Player of the Year candidate. However, the truth may be that he isn’t even the best player in his own conference.

That’s no knock on the junior guard, who has averaged 23 points and 4.3 assists while leading a freshman-oriented Connecticut team to 19 wins, with four coming over ranked opponents.

But Walker has slowed down the last few weeks, averaging just 16 points in February, and the parity in the Big East has a handful of players in the running for conference MVP.

Right on Walker’s heels is senior guard Ben Hansbrough, who has averaged 17.3 points and 4.1 assists while leading Notre Dame, which began the season unranked, to a top-10 ranking. While having to follow in his brother Tyler’s footsteps, who became a legend at North Carolina, he has also had to fill the shoes of Luke Harangody, who graduated a year ago as Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer.

Providence senior wing Marshon Brooks might not have the wins to put on his resume, but his numbers have been as impressive as anyone in the league. Even though his Friars have only won two conference games, Brooks leads the Big East with 24.1 points per game and, at just 6-foot-5, ranks fifth with 7.5 rebounds per game.

Players like Syracuse senior forward Rick Jackson (12.9 points, 11.2 rebounds per game), Georgetown senior guard Austin Freeman (18.5 points, 45.1 percent beyond the arc), and Villanova senior guard Corey Fisher (15.8 points, 5.2 assists per game) all have a shot to make their case over the next month and a half.

Walker might be in the driver’s seat right now, but there’s still plenty of time for him to lose it or for one of the aforementioned players to take it from him.

Player of the week, Kyle Kuric, junior guard, Louisville:

Marquette fans surely remember the shooting clinic senior guard Preston Knowles put on during Louisville’s comeback against the Golden Eagles late in the second half of last month’s matchup, but this week it was another sharpshooter on coach Rick Pitino’s squad filling up the box score.

Kuric, averaging 10 points per game, went for 28 points and six rebounds in an 89-79 overtime loss to Notre Dame last Wednesday and followed that performance with a 23 point, five rebound effort against Syracuse Saturday in a game Louisville won by four.

The junior guard made 9-of-14 from beyond the arc on the week, was a perfect 6-of-6 from the free throw line, shot 62 percent from the field, and committed just one turnover. He also put Notre Dame senior guard Scott Martin on a poster with a thunderous dunk at the end of the first half.

Game of the week, 8 p.m., Feb. 18, Connecticut vs. Louisville:

As many as 11 Big East teams could make the NCAA Tournament, so every matchup on the 18-game schedule is crucial. When those two teams are within one game of each other as the fourth- and fifth-ranked teams in the conference, it becomes even more crucial.

Connecticut will travel to Louisville on Friday in hopes of avenging a 79-78 double-overtime loss back on Jan. 29. In that game, Kemba Walker had two chances to hit game-winners, but missed both, handing the Huskies their first home loss and ending a four-game conference winning streak.

Walker finished with 20 points in the contest, but made just 7-of-23 shots from the field, while Louisville sophomore guard Peyton Siva, Walker’s counterpart,  had 19 points, seven assists and three steals.