"We never got down. I think that was really key for us today. They made a couple runs, but we never got down. We stayed with it and everybody was helping one another and making sure we got through it. We were able to get through it and that's how we pulled off this game today."
- D.J. Kennedy after St. John's 71-65 win over Notre Dame
After a week's rest for both teams, Jamie Dixon's #1 Pittsburgh Panthers meet the St. John's Red Storm squad that is coming off of a win over #10 Notre Dame. Neither could be said to play a fast-paced, wide open brand of basketball; the refs swallow their whistles when these two teams meet. Both teams can play the kind of unsexy basketball that never, ever makes its way into Hollywood basketball movies or And-1 highlight reels.
But what should be a matchup of fairly comparable basic styles has ended up with St. John's getting the wrong end of the stick.
Since a win over then-undefeated and #9 ranked Pittsburgh in 2006 at the Garden, those heady days when Cedric Jackson and Phil Missere graced your Red Storm box scores, the results have been:
2006/01/21 St. John's 55 Pittsburgh 50 Madison Square Garden
2007/01/27 Pittsburgh 72 St. John's 46 Petersen Events Center
2008/01/23 St. John's 57 Pittsburgh 81 Madison Square Garden
One thing the past two Pitt Panther teams have been good at is absolutely pasting St. John's by 1- dominating the glass at both ends and 2- simply shooting better. St. John's has helped them out with high turnover rates. In hindsight, it's hard to say exactly what went wrong in those two games... besides everything.
Even worse, last year's game wouldn't have even been close if Anthony Mason Jr. had not caught fire and scored more than half the team's points. The boos came out hard in the Garden last year, and I remember that numb and frustrated feeling of watching the basketball illustration of "dismal" and "hopeless."
The game generated the following quotes, taken from last year's Rumble write up:
NY Post - But all one needed to know that the sad reality had set in - that this will be a long and painful season for St. John's - was to listen to the despair in coach Norm Roberts' voice.
NY Daily News - There was still 3:21 left before the break and the Panthers, who were without injured starters Mike Cook and Levance Fields, held a 33-20 lead when the student body began to chant "Fire Norm!"
NY Newsday - Although the program has suffered more painful defeats in a mostly glorious history, few losses have presented a sadder spectacle than the emotional brownout seen at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night. To be fully comprehensive, the final score should be three-sided: Pittsburgh 81-Anthony Mason Jr. 29-St. John’s teammates 28.
And from Coach Norm Roberts himself -"I chose the path that we're on. I chose to bring in eight freshmen. I chose to do that for our program and to build a foundation. We have to take our lumps in order to get good."
Is this the time when St. John's gets good?
Last week's win against top-ten Notre Dame was an inspiring glimmer of hope, an "I believe I can fly" moment. But in truth, I would say that Notre Dame has struggled with St. John's the past 2 seasons, losing in the Garden in 2007, and winning a slower-than-usual game at the Joyce Center in 2008.
Pittsburgh has not had such problems in the past two years. For Pittsburgh, it's their first game (ever, I believe) with a #1 overall ranking. For Levance Fields, it's his final regular season game at Madison Square Garden in front of friends and family (the Big East Tournament, of course, will be played in MSG).
With the attention to detail and focus that Jamie Dixon brings, the increased scrutiny of being #1, and St. John's publicized win over Notre Dame, expect the Panthers to take St. John's seriously. (See also Pitt Blather's National Notes and Collected Local #1 Links)
One bonus for the Red Storm is the supposed return of point guard Malik Boothe from his injured thumb. And none too soon. Wonderful as the win was, the team also had 18 turnovers against an Irish team that doesn't press the issue defensively. How will they play against Pittsburgh's pressure?
The Panther defense is gritty, and everyone knows that. But the most interesting thing is that, so far, this edition of Pitt has been MORE stingy on defense than in previous years. The team is as good as ever on offense, with a slightly improved offensive rebounding effort by DeJuan Blair (the best offensive rebounder by rate in the country). The loss of their three point shooters Mike Cook and Ronald Ramon has meant that they shoot slightly fewer 3's per game, but the dropoff in percentage has been minimal.
But on defense, they are allowing fewer offensive rebounds and fewer trips to the free throw line. Most importantly, they have gone from allowing 46.8% shooting on 2-point attempts/ 33.4% on 3-point attempts to 40.3% on 2-point attempts/ 30.3% on 3-point attempts. Perhaps that's experience and familiarity on defense. Whatever it is, it's an impressive defense, especially considering how the tallest rotation player is 6'8" Tyrell Biggs. They all combine to cut off slashers to the basket and crush the spirits of all who oppose them.
Levance Fields isn't fast, but crisply hands out assists with an incredibly low turnover rate. His shooting had been erratic at times, but is adequate this year. DeJuan Blair is a straight up monster on the glass. He is helped on the defensive end by Brad Wanamaker and on the offensive end by Biggs; Sam Young rebounds well on both ends. But DeJuan Blair is more than a rebounder. At 265 pounds, he records steals like a ball hawking point guard and blocks shots like a man 4 inches taller, all while being sure-handed with the ball.
And THEN the high-flying Sam Young can create his shot anytime he well pleases. And he pleases a lot. Biggs and Jermaine Dixon make good on their opportunities in the often-deliberate offense. Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown can put up some points off of the bench as well. The team shares the basketball willingly, runs long sets, and looks to take smart shots.
PG 2 Levance Fields SR 5'10" 190lbs - 10.1 ppg/ 6.5 apg/ 1.4 TOg/ 2.5 rpg/ 34.7% 3PT
G 3 Jermaine Dixon 6'3" 190lbs - 7.1 ppg/ 2.3 rpg/ 16.3% 3PT
G/F 23 Sam Young SR 6'6" 215lbs - 19.5 ppg/ 5.9 rpg/ 51.7% FG/ 37.5% 3PT
F 5 Tyrell Biggs SR 6'8" 240lbs - 8.4 ppg/ 5.5 rpg/ 2.4 fpg/ 50% 3PT (9-18)
F 45 DeJuan Blair SO 6'7" 265lbs - 14.2 ppg/ 12.5 rpg (5.8 OFF)/ 1.8 spg/ 2.5 fpg/ 61.2% FG/ 55.3% FT
Last week, St. John's rocked the Garden with a hard-fought win against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball team, battling well on defense. The guards stayed with their men, Justin Burrell played heavy minutes while making an impact on both ends, and Rob Thomas put up points and offensive rebounds in an hurry. Even Dele Coker, though called for fouls, played good defense.
With Malik Boothe hopefully coming back, one of the backup guards will likely spend a bit more time on the bench; I would assume it would by TyShwan Edmondson, since Quincy Roberts has been playing 30+ minutes in his starts. The team will likely extend a little pressure on Levance with Malik, and try to make the senior Pitt guard run with Boothe. If Boothe doesn't play, Quincy Roberts will receive his 4th start on the season. The Panthers are excellent at stopping run outs and making runs; ball security will be paramount in this game.
Of note: an interesting thing happened just before St. John's took a beating at the hands of the Providence Friars on New Year's Eve. Rutgers played tough, turnover-free ball against Pittsburgh, leading at the end of the first half before getting stuffed in the second with a Pitt zone. They also had DeJuan Blair in foul trouble - he only played 8 minutes. Rutgers' Mike Rosario was cold throughout the game, but the Scarlet Knights still held their own until a Pitt run led by Wanamaker. Can St. John's do the same thing?
PG 3 Malik Boothe SO 5'9" 180 lbs - 8.4 ppg/ 3.6 rpg/ 5.0 apg/ 3 TOg/ 1.6 spg/ 38.8% FG/ 23.3% 3PT
G 23 Paris Horne SO 6'3" 185lbs - 13.0 ppg/ 3.2 rpg/ 2.2 apg/ 33.3% 3PT/ 1.6 spg/ 1:1 A/TO ratio
G/F 1 DJ Kennedy SO 6'6" 210 lbs - 13.0 ppg/ 7.3 rpg (2.1 OFF)/ 2.6 apg/ 2.2 fpg
F 24 Justin Burrell SO 6'8" 240 lbs - 10.5 ppg/ 4.5 rpg/ 2.1 TOg/ 51.7% FG/ 57.1% 3PT/ 2.6 fpg
F 5 Sean Evans SO 6'8" 250 lbs - 10.1 ppg/ 6.5 rpg/ 53.7% FG/ 46.4% FT
Five Points -or - Keys to the Game
"I'm The Greatest Basketball Player Who Ever Lived." Much like Bill Bellamy's wide receiver Sanderson in the movie Any Given Sunday, the Red Storm players have to hype themselves up into some confidence, and build from the performance against Notre Dame. Justin Burrell can be a beast. Rob Thomas can be the x-factor.
DJ Kennedy can play a great all around game in the vicinity of his home, and with friends and family present. This could be a game where Paris Horne could go off, stealing and speeding to the hoop. His game against McAlarney got his name in the papers; a star turn for the best scoring guard on the St. John's roster.
These things are possible, even against a team with a "#1" before its name. The talent is there. Maybe it just takes a little confidence.
Challenge DeJuan Blair. Of course, challenging DeJuan Blair on defense sometimes means getting one's shot stuffed - he's one quick leaper. And challenging his crafty and powerful offensive moves can mean going to the bench with fouls. But if St. John's is going to be elite, someone has to stay with DeJuan Blair at all times, trying to box him out and minimizing his effect on the glass.
Blair does get into foul trouble himself, so attacking him on offense with Burrell, Evans, and Rob Thomas could send him to the bench. And if the team can make Blair take contested jumpers - well he's not that tall, and that has to be a better strategy than allowing him layups. But much like playing Harangody of Notre Dame, doubling Blair is a losing proposition. He passes decently out of double teams, and his teammates are more than happy to dunk on an open basket.
Make Them Shoot Threes. It's a better strategy than watching Sam Young and Gilbert Brown enjoy dunk practice. The Panthers run crisp offensive sets and will tire St. John's out on defense... which is when they make runs. If St. John's can keep the shots to the "contested-three" variety, they will stand a chance of slowing the Pitt offense down. Can St. John's hold the Panthers to jump shots? Can St. John's get easy shots themselves, or will they be relegated to shooting jump shots?
Shrimp on Shrimp Action. Something you might not know about both teams - they are functionally short. Both have average (weighted by minutes played) heights around 6'4"; St. John's is the taller team, and not by much. Position by position, the players are similarly sized, with the Panthers enjoying a slight weight advantage. At point guard, the guards will for once not be undersized. Is Boothe fully healthy (assuming he plays)? Can Boothe slow down the powerful Levance Fields? Can Boothe initiate the offense against the crafty NYC-bred guard? Can Levance keep Boothe from getting clear passes to his teammates?
It Gets Slippery in Peterson. None of the grinding gameplan means much if St. John's cannot take exemplary care of the basketball. They won't stand a chance with foolish inbounds plays, lazy passes, loose dribbles; Fields, Blair, Young, Dixon, Wanamaker, and Brown all have sticky hands when it comes to basketball, and they do not hesitate to put pressure on each opposing player. Combined with their ability to not turn the ball over, a few ballhandling mistakes can make this an ugly blowout.