The 2018 St. John’s Red Storm might go down as the most erratic team in men’s college basketball history. When they were losing, they couldn’t do anything right. But now that they’re winning, they’re taking down some of the most feared programs in the country. No team has ever rattled off a more impressive series of victories from a less likely place than the Johnnies did over the past week and change.
But let’s roll things back a bit. To start things off, coach Chris Mullin’s squad began the season 10-2 — tied for the program’s second-best start to a season in 32 years. Although most of those wins came against relatively weak opponents, the team was competitive late in each of its losses (to Missouri and Arizona State, both of whom rank among the top 40 in Ken Pomeroy’s power ratings). Coming off a season of progress in Mullin’s second year at the helm, things finally appeared to be looking up for the Storm in their quest to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015.
Then the wheels fell off. Starting with their first Big East game of the year, a loss to Providence three days after Christmas, the Johnnies proceeded to drop 11 straight games. Before the calendar could even flip to February, St. John’s had matched its in-conference loss total for all of last season. An early season-ending injury to sophomore guard Marcus LoVett, who’d finished second on the team in scoring last season, helped tank the offense,1 and the defense collapsed from 13th in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings to 41st over the span of a month.
St. John’s found numerous ways to lose during the streak. For instance, there was the 25-point loss to Butler, in which the Storm almost instantly found themselves in a 19-2 hole and scored just 45 points all game (the school’s second-worst offensive output in a game since 2010-11). Then there was the marathon back-and-forth defeat against Georgetown that it took two overtimes to decide — and that the Johnnies led by 5 with 24 seconds left in the first overtime, only to watch Hoyas forward Marcus Derrickson tie the game with a personal 6-1 run.
After their 11th straight loss, a hard-fought 73-68 defeat against sixth-ranked Xavier, the Johnnies’ future looked even more bleak. Games against Duke, Villanova and Marquette were coming up, so there was little to suggest that the Red Storm would be able to pull their season out of its death spiral.
And that’s when one of the most absurd eight-day turnarounds in college history started: an upset win over the then-No. 4 Blue Devils to snap the losing streak. An even bigger upset at Villanova, which was No. 1 at the time. A relatively — dare I say it? — routine victory over a tough Golden Eagles squad, with the kind of second-half performance that good teams grind out. All the while, sophomore guard Shamorie Ponds has transformed into a superstar, averaging 34 points per game on 55 percent shooting during the shocking three-game winning streak. For a team that might not even make the NIT, they’ve looked like a tournament dark horse in recent days.
How unexpected was this sudden reversal? Our Elo power-rating data goes back to the 1949-50 season, and over that span there have been 1,207 streaks where a team won three games in a row against opponents who each had Elo ratings over 1750 — the mark of a good team.2 Of those 1,207 teams, none had a lower Elo at the start of their streak than St. John’s, who’d dropped to a 1511 rating at its nadir (which was a low point since Dec. 2016, and the program’s fifth-lowest rating in a season since 1964). Statistically speaking, the Johnnies might have been the least likely team in history to rattle off those three particular wins at that particular moment in time.
|Win No. 1||Win No. 2||Win No. 3|
|2008||Georgia*||Ole Miss||1758||Kentucky||1788||Miss. St.||1893||1599|
|2008||Okla. St.||Baylor||1767||Tex. A&M||1928||Kansas||2051||1607|
|Season||Team||No. 1||No. 2||No. 3||Starting Elo|
|2008||Georgia*||Ole Miss||Kentucky||Miss. St.||1599|
|2008||Okla. St.||Baylor||Tex. A&M||Kansas||1607|
The victories over Duke and Villanova alone were historic. According to Elo, St. John’s was the lowest-rated team ever to knock off two teams with ratings over 1900 in back-to-back games, toppling a record that had previously been held by the 1957-58 Nebraska Cornhuskers (when the Huskers beat No. 4 Kansas and then No. 1 Kansas State). But unlike that Nebraska team, which lost the following game, the Red Storm tacked on another impressive win to bring their streak up to three in a row.
They’ll try to extend it to four straight on Wednesday night, against DePaul in Chicago — and according to Pomeroy’s projections, there’s a 49 percent chance that St. John’s will pull it off. If so, it would only add to one of the most up-and-down seasons the sport has ever seen. Even after three big wins, the Red Storm still aren’t on anybody’s NCAA tourney radar. In fact, with 13 losses already on the books, maybe the only sure way for St. John’s to get to the dance would be for them to win the Big East Tournament — possibly by knocking off Villanova again. But hey, stranger things have already happened.