St. John's could easily be undefeated right now.
If it weren't for a highly controversial call at the end of the Seton Hall game and a blown lead in the final minutes at Villanova on Tuesday, the Red Storm would be 16-0 and 4-0 in the Big East.
Instead, the No. 24 Johnnies are 14-2 and 2-2 in the league, behind Villanova, Marquette and Seton Hall. They play three of their next four games at home -- beginning with Saturday against DePaul (9-5, 1-2) -- and need to take care of the home court in those games.
Given their non-conference resume was not especially impressive, the Johnnies will likely need to finish at least 9-9 in the Big East -- or win the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden in March outright -- to earn the school's first NCAA Tournament bid since 2015. And that is the ultimate goal.
Anything short of that will be a failure -- for the players, the students and even the growing bandwagon of casual fans in New York City. At this early stage, ESPN's Joe Lunardi has St. John's as a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament in his most recent bracketology.
"They're definitely a Top 25 team in the country," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team beat St. John's 76-71 on Tuesday. "They are explosive offensively."
Still, in order to get where they want to go, the Red Storm will have to learn how to close games more effectively.
After putting up 15 points in the first half when the Red Storm took a 39-34 lead on Villanova, Shamorie Ponds went cold in the second half, especially down the stretch when Villanova outscored St. John's 14-4 in the final 4:08.
"We played a lot of close games," head coach Chris Mullin said Thursday. "We did a good job in some. Obviously, in two we haven't. We'll try to do better. We're going to try to do better, promise."
One advantage St. John's have that other teams don't is Ponds.
The 6-foot-1 guard was named Wednesday to the Wooden Award Midseason Watch List, along with fellow Big East guards Myles Powell of Seton Hall and Markus Howard of Marquette, who set a Big East Conference scoring record with 53 points in Wednesday's overtime win against Creighton.
"Guys like that don't come around very often," Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said of the trio.
"I think our conference has arguably the best guards in the country," Wright said. Ponds is averaging 20.6 points, 6.0 assists and 4.4 rebounds. As he goes, so goes St. John's.
Other teams know he can be a ruthless closer, and St. John's will need him to close games going forward.
"Part of being able to close games out is having a closer," DePaul coach Dave Leitao said. "In baseball, it's that guy that comes in in the eighth or ninth inning and in basketball, it's having a guy that has the ball in his hands and makes great decisions and that's what Shamorie Ponds has been for them. He's an extremely trustworthy guy. He can make good and positive decisions almost every time and when it comes down to late-game situations, he becomes even better.
"He's as cool a customer on the collegiate level as you're going to find. If you give him space, he can make a shot. If you play up on him, he can go by you. If you put another body on him, he's going to make somebody else better. It becomes a very difficult guard overall. He knows how to use angles very well. He knows how to use his body, he does all the little things that a guy that is beyond his years mentally as well as physically can do so it creates a great challenge late-game."
Ponds, the lone home-grown star on this St. John's team, is surrounded now by veteran transfers recruited by assistant coach Matt Abdemassih, players like Marvin Clark II (Michigan State), Justin Simon (Arizona), Mustapha Heron (Auburn) and L.J. Figueroa (junior college). All four of them are averaging in double-figures.
"What makes Shamorie so effective is not just his talent but the shooters he has around him," Villanova's Wright said. "It's hard to stop him as it is but you leave those guys and he's finding people and they're hitting shots. They're as difficult to guard as anybody we've played.
"And they play with a confidence and a level of experience that's going to be valuable for them I think postseason."
Now Ponds and the Johnnies must work on closing games out to get where they want to go.