St. John’s had not won a basketball game in over a month. It had not won a Big East basketball game in over 11 months. It had started conference play 0-11, its third season under Chris Mullin spiraling out of control.
That was last week.
Five days later, the Red Storm are the most surprising and nonsensical story in college basketball. They shocked No. 1 Villanova, 79-75, on Wednesday night in Philadelphia, four days after toppling No. 4 Duke at Madison Square Garden. They pulled off that stunner four days after sinking deeper into an 11-game losing streak that featured two losses to Georgetown and a 17-point home defeat at the hands of DePaul.
They did something Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center that, statistically, they had a 3 percent chance to do. The likelihood of back-to-back top-five upsets was roughly 0.3 percent. There is no logical explanation for this, and no proper reaction other than amazement.
There are a few caveats. Villanova, previously 22-1, was without Eric Paschall and Phil Booth. It was effectively reduced to a six-man rotation. Its historically efficient offense shot an ice-cold 24 percent (8-for-33) from beyond the 3-point arc. Jalen Brunson missed nine of his 11 triples. Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo were a combined 2-for-16 from deep.
The Wildcats trailed most of the way, and by nine with under three minutes to go. The visitors, who came in as 16-point underdogs, were consistently first to loose balls, and hit shots that their hosts couldn’t get to fall.
Then Villanova made its inevitable charge. With 23 seconds remaining, freshman Conor Gillespie cut St. John’s lead to one with an NBA-range 3 off an offensive rebound. Spellman had a 3-point look on the following possession that would have given the Wildcats their first lead since 29-28.
But Spellman missed, and the Red Storm made just enough free throws down the stretch as Jay Wright and his team extended the game. Shamorie Ponds followed up 33 points in the upset of Duke with 26. Fellow sophomore guard Justin Simon tallied 16 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
And ‘Nova, widely considered the nation’s best team, fell for just the second time this season.
Both losses have come in the Big East, and this one puts the Wildcats a half-game behind Xavier for the conference lead. ‘Nova has won four consecutive outright Big East titles, but with a trip to Cincinnati to face the Musketeers looming in 10 days, that streak could be in jeopardy.
Villanova’s status as a national title favorite, however, is not in jeopardy. When healthy – both Paschall and Booth should be come March – it remains one of the best, if not the best team in college basketball. A frigid shooting night and some defensive breakdowns don’t change that.
But they also don’t explain how this was possible. How Villanova became the third top-ranked team in college basketball history to lose to a sub-.500 team at home. How St. John’s, which hadn’t beat a ranked team in over 400 days, beat two in five. That will forever remain inexplicable.