Big time in the Garden tonight—Big East conference play style. St. John’s plays the 13th ranked Pittsburgh Panthers for the Red Storm’s first home game in Madison Square Garden (besides the Holiday Festival) tonight at 7 PM. Pittsburgh has also played a game in the garden this year, giving Duke their first and only loss of this college basketball season.
As always, Pittsburgh is tough as nails, having lost team bulldog and starting point Levance Fields (from Brooklyn) and Mike Cook both to injury. The Bronx’ Ronald Ramon—previously known as a limited three-point shooting specialist—is playing point guard for Coach Jamie Dixon’s squad, and playing with a partially torn labrum (shoulder).
The team plays like what the Red Storm has aspired to in the past few years—slow, tough, and physical. They’ve been carried by their forwards Sam Young, who has come into his own, scoring, shooting, rebounding and getting to the free throw line at a good clip for a 6’6" player; and DeJuan Blair, who is DJ Kennedy’s former high school teammate (links to articles). Keith Benjamin has been on a hot shooting streak. And the Panthers have a rough upcoming schedule against the top half of the Big East.*
Coach Norm Roberts always pulls a rabbit out of the hat for one or two games at the Garden—evidenced by last year’s Notre Dame and Syracuse wins at home. Granted, that team had some players who were of drinking age, but those games also featured a little more Larry Wright. But could this be the game that gives Red Storm fans some hope? Maybe.
Coach Roberts is starting freshman center Dele Coker over junior Tomas Jasiulionis, who will undoubtedly take the demotion with grace and class, as he comes off like a good guy, even if his production has been lacking. Coker hasn’t been on the court much in Big East play, averaging 10.2 minutes (and nearly 2 fouls per game, mostly of the ticky-tack vareity). But Coker has some surprising quickness and ability, and though he doesn't get great defensive position, good strength. He's had a couple of very emphatic blocks this season, and has a solid outside shooting stroke.
Coach Roberts also plans to play Malik Boothe for more time; Eugene Lawrence has come along slowly from his badly bruised quad last week at West Virginia. Hopefully his playmaking ability and quickness on both ends of the court will play a big factor. Or make St. John's look less offensively challenged. The 5'9" Boothe has been averaging 13.6 minutes per game and has a 3/1 assist to turnover ratio in conference play.
Justin Burrell will probably take more than 6 shots as he did against West Virginia. Larry Wright has been playing tough defense, expect him to get his 15-20 minutes and put up 10 points on less than 10 shots.
Pitt (stats for Big East play):
F Sam Young 6’6", 215: 19.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 5-13 3pt (39%), 20-30 FT (67%)
F DeJuan Blair 6’7", 250: 12.6 ppg, 10 rpg, 1 blk/g, 1.6 stl/g, 3 fouls/g, 47% fg, 17-29 FT (59%)
PG Ronald Ramon 6’1", 180: 9 ppg, 6 apg, 11-25 3pt (44%)
SG Keith Benjamin 6’2", 190: 15.2 ppg, 14-30 3pt (47%), 2.8 to/g
F Gilbert Brown 6’6", 190: 6 ppg, 2.2 apg, 3.8 rpg
St. John’s (stats for Big East play):
F Justin Burrell 6’8", 220: 15 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 15-17 FT (88%), 3 fouls/g
F Anthony Mason Jr. 6’7", 207: 13.2 ppg, 5 rpg, 3.8 apg, 3.4 to/g
C Dele Coker 6’10", 280: 2.2 rpg, 10 min/g
G Eugene Lawrence 6’1" 225: 7 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.4 apg, 3 to/g
G/F DJ Kennedy 6’6" 190: 6.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.8 to/g
Keys to the Game:
Tough and Ugly. This is the game for beefy players. There will be some finesse from the guards, certainly, but St. John’s must bump and harass Ramon and Benjamin and crew. If they get them into foul trouble, even better; Pittsburgh is very thin right now. Burrell must come with a performance against fellow rookie DeJuan Blair, whose quickness belies his heft. Coker might be assigned to him for the strength matchup; if he can manage to get good position and not foul (two tough tasks for the raw freshman center in the early going), DeJuan might find himself in a tougher game than he thought. Again… those are some big "if’s".
Offensive Rebounding. Or Rebounding in general; both teams have a better than + 5.5 rebounding margin over the Big East clubs they have faced. Kennedy and Burrell have been key in this, getting into the middle of things to grab the ball. And St. John’s needs all the extra opportunities they can muster; the Storm is shooting 39% from the field and is being outscored by an average of 5 points per Big East game. Offensive rebounding will be especially in need if the Panthers play zone defense; St. John’s looks confused every time they see a non-man defense, and the ball movement slows down, and the shots get impossibly worse. Second chance points will be key.
Run! I think Burrell will get his shots, and Larry Wright will hit 2 three-pointers, and Anthony Mason will get some points and brick more than he hits. But this team has to find itself with some easy opportunities, some turnovers and run outs. With Coker hopefully blocking a shot or two, and with Boothe speeding up the floor, this team has to fill the lanes and put pressure on the Pittsburgh defense (the way the Red Storm’s set offense often fails to do).
I would also add "ball movement" and "crisp screens," but that might be asking too much from this team.
*Sidebar: top half? If the Big East were Premiership Soccer, St. John’s would have been relegated already, and Pittsburgh would be Chelsea.