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For St. John's Seniors, Road To NCAA Tournament Has Been Long And Perilous

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Once one of the more powerful programs in the nation, St. John's has not won an NCAA Tournament game in 15 years.

In fact, the Red Storm have only made the tournament three times this century, with their last significant showing coming in 1998-99 when they advanced to the Elite Eight under then-head coach Mike Jarvis.

To say the program has been trying to find itself ever since is an understatement.

This season has been an emotional roller coaster for St. John's (21-11), with the lows keeping the highs in check. Yet, somehow the Red Storm find themselves back in the tournament for the first time since 2010-11, Steve Lavin's first as head coach, as the No. 9 seed in the South Region.

Steve Lavin

For key seniors D'Angelo Harrison, Sir'Dominic Pointer, Phil Greene and Jamal Branch, Friday night's game against No. 8 San Diego State (26-8) represents the beginning of their last chance to accomplish something significant.

"Senior experience in college basketball is important, yet this will be new territory. There is not a player on our roster that has NCAA Tournament experience," Lavin said on Sunday as the team learned it had made the Big Dance. "We are eager for the challenge of playing San Diego State and are grateful for the opportunity to move through the bracket."

One of only three players in program history to score at least 2,000 points, Harrison should be especially motivated to make the most of this final hurrah.

"Getting in was big for me. I know it was for everyone else. Winning games and having all of these accolades does not mean anything because we haven't done anything in the NCAA Tournament," Harrison said. "The fact that we are in is a big step for me and the program. We just want to win as many games as possible."

Pointer did it all for St. John's this season, averaging 13.7 points and winning Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors.

"We started here together and we are going to finish together," Pointer said of the seniors. "No matter what happens, this is big for us in the sense that we worked so hard (for this) our whole lives. Over the last four years we have been together. We've had our ups and downs, but now it is finally coming together."

Greene averaged 13.2 points and was the Red Storm's best 3-point shooter, connecting on nearly 40 percent.

"It's one of the greatest sporting events and we get to participate in it," Greene said. "It is truly a blessing and it is a testament to our work ethic and all that we accomplished this season."

The Red Storm started out with 11 wins in their first 12 games and were ranked as high as No. 15 in the AP Top 25 before a run of seven losses in their next 10 threatened to sink their season.

Lavin's team appeared to turn things around by winning seven of its next eight, but got destroyed by No. 4 Villanova in the regular season finale before getting handled by Providence in the Big East quarterfinals, the fourth straight year the Red Storm failed to win a conference tournament game.

St. John's did enough during its pre-conference tournament hot streak to position itself firmly within most bracketologists' field of 68, but a No. 9 seed following an 11-1 start is disappointing.

What's more, the Red Storm were dealt a major blow over the weekend when it was learned that defensive stalwart Chris Obekpa reportedly failed a drug test and would not be available in the tournament unless St. John's somehow shocks the world and makes it to the Final Four.

Lavin told WFAN's Mike Francesa on Tuesday he wasn't overly concerned by how his team finished up down the stretch, adding the loss of Obekpa represents an opportunity to throw a smaller, faster lineup at teams in the tournament that haven't seen the Red Storm before.

"This is one of those groups that's very resilient," Lavin said. "I do believe this a group that can bounce back. Does that guarantee a victory? No. But I think the probabilities, the percentages of this team stepping up and being competitive and giving itself a chance to win is very likely."

So, a team that has plenty of ability but lacks depth and experience will try to get something going when it takes on San Diego State, which made it to the Sweet 16 in both 2011 and 2014.

"There are teams at home that are not playing anymore, but being one of the last few teams that are still alive and playing is a great feeling," Branch said. "We're not going to take advantage of that, so we're going to work hard and practice to get ready for Friday."

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