Before the Notre Dame game, I started the preview post with "this is the time of year when coaches start to say their players are no longer freshmen."
Proving that the Red Storm staff takes a read of the site, Mike Dunlap told the beat media that "when you cross that threshold [of minutes played] it needs to be pointed out that they aren't freshman anymore in the capacity. They have a lot of game experience against the best teams in America."
(Kidding. I think assistant coach Dunlap came to his own conclusions.)
So the sophomores of Red Storm travel to Pittsburgh to take on the reeling Pitt Panthers for the first time. The Red Storm is riding high with three wins in a row, a Big East Rookie of the Week in forward Moe Harkless, both he and D`Angelo Harrison on pace to break St. John's freshman scoring records, and the kind of momentum/ confidence that makes the Storm a team no one wants to play in the Big East Tourney.
St. John's is currently 11th in the conference, and has a shot at 10th place. Not bad for a decimated roster.
But Pittsburgh, despite their poor recent run, has some scoring talent and a number of big men who are hard to stop on the glass. And St. John's recent run has come at home; can they take their winning ways on the road?
Mood Music: Funk/ soul: Steel City Orchestra, Steel City Disco (video, opens in new window)
Rock: The Strokes, Hard to Explain (video, opens in new window)
Tip Off: 7:00 PM, Eastern
Vs: Pittsburgh Panthers (15-14, 4-12 Big East)
Location: Petersen Events Center, Pittsburgh, PA
TV: ESPNU | ESPN3 Radio: Bloomberg 1130
Surprisingly, PItt has done very little well in Big East play. The same Pitt Panthers have one of the highest win percentages in the Big East since the absorption of Louisville, Cincinnati, and the other conference USA teams. Pitt basketball stood for stability, tough defense, just enough offense, and players with a chip on their shoulders.
This season? The Panthers are the worst in the league at hitting their two-pointers. Last season, they were fifth in the Big East. Last season, Pitt nailed just under 40% of their threes, with Ashton Gibbs shooting 48.5% from outside the arc. This season, the Panthers shot 29.3%, and Gibbs is shooting a career-low 29.9%.
Players like J.J. Moore - once a St. John's target from Long Island, who has averaged 16 points per game in the past three contests - have provided intermittent punch and can be dangerous, but this team struggles to keep up with opponents.
But, there's more!
This year, Pitt can't defend inside the arc (giving up 50% shooting on twos), outside the arc (relatively. The Big East isn't shooting the three well as a league), and allow teams to get to the free throw line. Pitt struggles to contain penetration from guards, and the Pitt bigs don't provide consistent help on offense or defense.
What Pitt CAN do well? Rebound.
Panther plus: rebounding. Pittsburgh, behind the big 6'9" bodies of Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna, can handle their business on the glass. And on the offensive glass, they are helped by the undersized (6'5") Lamar Patterson and Nasir Robinson. For players like God`sgift Achiuwa and SIr`Dominic Pointer, there are a lot of aggressive bodies attacking the airspace near the rim, trying to will PItt to a win.
Panther plus: Robinson + Patterson's hustle. As mentioned before, both players are exemplary offensive rebounders and solid defenders. Patterson has some passing ability and has shot 40% on his shots from outside the arc.
Panther minus: turnovers. Pitt's main ballhandler, Tray Woodall, turns the ball over 4 times per game in conference play, 31% of his possessions. Ashton Gibbs is only looking to curl off of screens for a shot; with the ball in his hands, he's almost a liability at times. And between bad passes and bad dribbles, the rest of the team is insecure with the ball. Amir Garrett, D`Angelo Harrison and Phil Greene will have chances to trigger or finish the Johnnies' transition play.
Panther minus: lack of post play. The bigs need to be worried about, but they likely will not initiate much offense themselves. Achiuwa, Pointer, and Moe Harkless have to keep them outside five feet of the basket.
Five Points/ Keys to the Game
Box out. The Panthers' size is their one difference maker, the one aspect of the game where the Panthers are in the top half of the Big East. This will be a tall task for God'sgift and Pointer, but both have held their own against big men for months. And their energy and ability to beat the Pitt forwards down the court can create opportunities.
Attack the rim. There will be holes in the Panther defense if St. John's is patient early. And the best way to get stars Moe Harkless and D`Angelo Harrison involved in the kind of scoring that will carry a team, both players have to mix jump shots with aggressive forays to the basket.
Keep the Panthers on ice. St. John's can't play sloppy or loves shape in defensive transition. It's Pitt's second to last game of the year and on their Senior Night, Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson want to go out with winning memories. The Storm have to manage that emotion and not embolden Jamie Dixon's charges. Phil Greene will have to be solid with his ballhandling.
Deflections and miscues. St. John's needs to continue to disrupt other teams to be effective. Moe Harkless and Amir Garrett run some effective trapping action in each corner.
Foul differential. St. John's has to get to the softer heart of the Pitt defense. But they have to do that without fouling the PItt players, so the Johnnies can take advantage of untimed free throw shots.
Prediction: The size of Pittsburgh could be a deciding factor. A guess: the Panthers surprisingly play well enough to squeak out the win at home, but it's close: 69-66.