NEW YORK -- All season, St. John's has seemed one step away. One step away from turning the corner, one step away from getting a noteworthy victory, one step away from solidifying itself as an NCAA tournament team.
There was the close loss at home to Syracuse back in December that would have given the Red Storm a marquee non-conference win. There was the three-point loss at Creighton in late January when Doug McDermott hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds. There was the three-point loss at Villanova on Saturday, a game in which St. John's had chances down the stretch but couldn't capitalize.
It's been the biggest story for St. John's this season. The Red Storm have had plenty of chances to improve their résumé for the NCAA tournament, and they continue to fall short.
Which brings us to Tuesday night's Big East bubble showdown against Xavier at Madison Square Garden. Everything was going the Red Storm's way on paper. Xavier was coming off a 22-point loss at Georgetown, plus the Musketeers were only 2-5 on the road in the league. While Xavier had a better at-large résumé heading into the game, this was the opportunity St. John's needed to close the gap and prove it was a better team than the Xaviers, Providences and Georgetowns of the Big East bubble world.
And again, St. John's fell short of making the statement it needed to make, losing to the visiting Musketeers, 65-53. Once again, one step away.
"There's no excuse, this was the biggest game of the year," St. John's guard Phil Greene said. "We came out flat. This wasn't the same team we had been during the streak we were on."
It might have been the worst game St. John's has played since the five-game losing streak that dropped the Red Storm to 9-8 overall and 0-5 in conference play. And it was their biggest margin of loss since Jan. 4 at Georgetown.
"We weren't tied in together," head coach Steve Lavin said. "This was the first time since the Georgetown game I could say that. I thought tonight was subpar. We were out of sorts tonight."
Essentially nothing went right for St. John's on Tuesday night. The defense was porous for the most part, allowing Xavier to get inside looks on nearly every possession. Matt Stainbrook dominated early for the Musketeers, but was sent to the bench in foul trouble. In came Jalen Reynolds, a redshirt freshman who has been up and down for most of the season. And all Reynolds did was proceed to set career-high marks in points and rebounds, finishing with 17 points and 16 rebounds.
The most alarming part, though, was that Reynolds played with more fire and passion than anyone on St. John's. Considering this was the Red Storm's big chance to make a bubble statement, that's just embarrassing.
"It is the greatest challenge in sports," Lavin said. "Sustaining every game the level of effort. Teams have off-nights, but you have to continue to play at a high level. We're disappointed with the game we had today."
"It's not us," guard Jamal Branch said. "It's not acceptable."
St. John's was unable to get its transition game going, not scoring a single fast-break point. Part of it was Xavier's concerted effort to get back on defense, part of it was St. John's allowing the Musketeers to score too easily, and part of it was simply not finishing.
Moreover, star guard D'Angelo Harrison picked the wrong night to have his worst game of the season. He shot 1-for-11 from the field, finishing with a season-low four points.
After Xavier's weekend loss to Georgetown, the Musketeers had a couple of tough practices, knowing Tuesday was one of the biggest games of the season.
"[We wanted to] get back to the way we usually play," guard Semaj Christon said. "Everyone was competing. We wanted to go at each other and get our edge back."
"To play as flat as we did and as non-competitive as we did, we needed to put our hard hats on and compete," head coach Chris Mack said.
St. John's wasn't up to the task, though, and is basically in the same boat right now. The Red Storm welcome DePaul on Sunday, and then travel to Marquette next Saturday in the season finale. Coming off back-to-back losses, St. John's might not be able to afford another loss until the conference championship game – and even then, it might not be enough.
Unfortunately, that's a familiar mantra for the Red Storm this season.