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Oct 2, 2008

St. John's bounces back from a down year

St. John's sat out the NCAA tournament in Fall 2007 for the first time since 1991. That year also happened to mark coach Dave Masur's debut season as the school's associate athletic director. All Masur's teams had done before that -- besides making the tourney for 15 consecutive years -- is win 12 Big East titles, advance to 10 straight Sweet Sixteens through 2005, play in three College Cups and capture the 1996 national championship.

So it's not surprising that a word such as "disappointing" doesn't really do last season, during which St. John's went 9-7-5, proper justice.

But almost 11 months after Notre Dame ended the Queens, N.Y.-based school's tournament streak in the conference quarterfinals, the Red Storm have stormed back into the national spotlight.

If there were any doubts that the 2008 version of SJU is for real, a pair of impressive league victories against ranked opponents this past weekend erased them.

On Friday, Masur's men beat Big East archrival Connecticut 3-1 by scoring three unanswered goals after falling behind early. After the emotional win, a letdown against then-No. 22 Providence two days later wouldn't have shocked the coach, especially considering that his young squad features only three seniors. Instead, the Red Storm won 1-0 and posted their eighth shutout this season, tied for tops in Division I.

NCAA Scoreboard
This season, ESPNsoccernet brings you the scores from every men's and women's NCAA Division I game.

Click here for all the action.

St. John's is ranked second overall with a 8-0-2 record, trailing only defending Cup champ Wake Forest. Not bad for a team that didn't receive a single vote in the NSCAA's preseason poll.

And as ridiculous as the question would have seemed in August, it has to be asked of the man who led St. John's to College Cup cameos three times (1996, 2001, 2003) in the past 12 years: Can this team do something special?

"I really never got that feeling with any team, even the three Final Fours we've been to," Masur said a day after his team beat Providence. "Each and every time we get there, it ends up being a great surprise."

Masur is wise to manage expectations and not look too far ahead. There's far too much parity in college soccer for that, especially at tourney time.

Of course, they have to get there first. After last season, that's clearly the first task for the Johnnies. But as 2007 showed, there is no guarantee that traditional powers such as St. John's, UConn and, more recently, Notre Dame, will even get out of the super-tough Big East anymore.

"In the past, some Big East teams would go through cycles where every few years they would have a good team with a shot at doing well, and the other years they'd be rebuilding," Masur said. "Now, you have 16 programs expecting to win a championship."

The Atlantic Coast Conference still is widely regarded as the best league in the country. But the Big East, which sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament last year, is definitely closing the gap. Need proof? The ACC has two representatives in the top 10 this week, while the Big East has three.

So as good as St. John's has been so far, there's still a long way to go. The Red Storm have only one nonconference game left on the schedule (at Seton Hall on Oct. 15), and up next is a tough trip to Louisville on Oct. 4, which dispatched then-No. 3 Notre Dame its previous time out. Plus, a No. 2 ranking might as well be a target on the Red Storm's backs.

"There's a lot of good teams ready to step up in our conference," Masur said. "We know teams will be ready to play us, no matter who it is."

Quick hits

1. After losing inspirational coach Schellas Hyndman to MLS in June, SMU raced out to a 5-0-1 record under Hyndman's successor and former assistant, Tim McClements. But it seems the honeymoon is over. No. 15 SMU has lost two of its past three games, including an ugly 4-1 defeat to Tulsa in Dallas in its Conference USA opener. Losing C-USA games always is worrisome for the Mustangs, but their impressive start suggests this team can rebound.

2. Saint Louis is quietly climbing the polls, moving one spot this week to No. 11. But if the Billikens want to crack the top 10 next week, they'll have to beat fifth-ranked Creighton when the Bluejays visit the Gateway City on Saturday night.

3. Finally, some love for two schools we've neglected to mention yet this season: steadily improving North Carolina (12th, 7-1-1) and Big East dark horse South Florida (13th, 6-1-1). If both can pick up league wins in their lone games this weekend (versus Virginia and Syracuse respectively), we promise Heels and Bulls fans we'll have more on both next week.

What to watch for

It can't get much better than the televisual feast we gorged ourselves on this past Friday. But although a back-and-forth, six-goal thriller between America's highest-ranked teams is impossible to beat, this week's match between Connecticut and West Virginia (8 p.m ET, Fox Soccer Channel) is well worth watching -- not least because we spent much of this column singing the Big East's praises. True, WVU is having a down year after two fantastic ones, but UConn is right in the mix for honors this season, and the big-game atmosphere at UConn's Morrone Stadium is second to none.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.

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