Now seemingly back on the right side of the bubble after two straight home victories in the past week, the St. John's Red Storm will face another team who's tournament hopes are certainly not guaranteed when they take on the Xavier Musketeers tomorrow afternoon.
Both the Musketeers and the Red Storm sit either on or near the bubble at the moment, heightening this game's importance for each team. With a little bit of momentum on their side, can St. John's go on the road and take down Xavier in what would be a huge resume-boosting win?
How to Watch/Listen
The game will be an early 12:30 tip-off on Fox, with Joe Davis and Bob Wenzel calling the action. John Minko and Brandon Tierney will have the radio broadcast, which can be heard on 970 AM (WNYM).
St. John's is currently an eight-point underdog against Xavier tomorrow.
Scouting St. John's
The Red Storm will enter the Cintas Center tomorrow on a two-game Big East winning streak after they took down Creighton and DePaul at home over the past week. Although they were expected to win each of those games against subpar opponents, the pair of wins has given St. John's some much-needed momentum going into the stretch run of Big East play, and they will look to extend that momentum tomorrow.
Their 16-8 record at this point in the season is the most wins that a St. John's team has had through 24 games since 1999-2000, however their below average 5-6 record in the conference has them in the lower half of the Big East standings and on the bubble at this point.
Judging by his past two games it would appear that D`Angelo Harrison has his shot back once and for all, as the senior has scored a combined 54 points in his last two outings on a combined 15-22 shooting. Back to averaging 19 points per game on the season, Harrison was by far the best player on the court in Wednesday's win over DePaul, and that will likely need to be the case as well tomorrow.
The Red Storm are 9-3 on the season in games that Harrison has scored 20-plus points, including victories in their last two, and they will need him to put up similar numbers to his last two games tomorrow if they plan on stealing one from the Musketeers.
Swingman Sir`Dominic Pointer has also taken over as the team's leading rebounder with Chris Obekpa missing time over the last few games. Pointer scored 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in Wednesday's victory over DePaul, making that his fourth double-double in his last seven games. He has also been able to step up as a shot-blocker with Obekpa out, swatting away a combined 13 shots over his past two games, with five of them coming in the DePaul victory.
Pointer has likely been more heavily relied on by this team than many would have imagined at the start of the season with Harrison struggling for some time and now with Obekpa limited, but he truly has answered the bell so far and has arguably been their most valuable player at this point. He will need to keep that going in the season's final few games.
As mentioned above, Chris Obekpa is still limited with an ankle injury which sidelined him on Wednesday night, and his status is still up in the air for tomorrow as well. There has been no definitive news on whether or not the junior shot-blocker will play, but obviously he would be a huge help in the Red Storm frontcourt tomorrow.
Although they were able to play well in their last two wins, even out-rebounding DePaul by 16 on Wednesday night, Xavier poses a much different test for this frontcourt that already lacks depth as it is. If Obekpa cannot go once again, it would be tough for the Red Storm to go to a four guard lineup once again, which means that means that Joey De La Rosa and Christian Jones might pick up a few minutes as well.
With a 16-9 overall record and a 7-6 record in the Big East, Xavier sits on the top half of the Big East standings in fifth place at the moment. They've won two straight games in the conference with a nice win against Providence and a blowout over Marquette, however those wins are coming on the heels of a bad loss to Creighton.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi currently has them as a nine seed in the tournament at this moment, but with games still remaining at Cincinnati and at home against Butler and Villanova, the importance of this one cannot be understated for them.
The Musketeers feature a very balanced attack, with five of their players averaging more than nine points per game. Freshman forward Trevon Bluiett leads them with 12.4 points per game, however their leader who many around the country are familiar with is senior center Matt Stainbrook.
Stainbrook's scoring numbers are at the highest that they've been in his collegiate career, however his rebounding is down from 7.4 per game last year to 6.7 per game so far this season. He scored 13 points and hauled in six rebounds in the win over Marquette on Tuesday, however he was held without a basket in 22 minutes against Providence over the weekend.
Bluiett and Myles Davis are the other two Musketeers who average double figures in scoring, with Bluiett adding just under five rebounds per game as well. Being just a freshman, Bluiett has scored in double figures in five of his last six games, including a 19-point performance which tied him for the team lead in their huge win against Providence last weekend.
Jalen Reynolds and Remy Abell each add around nine points per game as well, while Dee Davis is currently in second place in the conference with a 6.2 assist per game average this season.
And as noted earlier, the Musketeers are right up there with some of the deepest teams in the Big East with only one player averaging over 30 minutes per game on the season. Seven players average between 15 and 30 minutes per game, which should give them a huge advantage against the short bench that St. John's employs.
St. John's Keys to the Game
Here's what the Red Storm will need to do if they plan on going into Cincinnati and defeating the Musketeers tomorrow afternoon.
Get big numbers from the backcourt. St. John's should be at a disadvantage in the paint in this one, especially with Obekpa out or limited, so in that case they'll need their talented backcourt to step up once again tomorrow.
D`Angelo Harrison appears to be back to his normal self, as noted earlier, while Rysheed Jordan and Phil Greene IV have each been putting up their usual production in conference play, and the Red Storm will need those three to produce for them tomorrow. St. John's has shot at a pretty decent percentage from 3-point range this season, and if Xavier goes into zone their three leaders in the backcourt should have no problem getting open looks from behind the arc.
Figure out how to defend Stainbrook and Reynolds. Matt Stainbrook and Jalen Reynolds will likely be thorns in the side of St. John's all game long tomorrow, especially if Obekpa is unable to play. Sir`Dominic Pointer may be able to hold his own defending one of those two by himself, but when both Stainbrook and Reynolds are on the floor at the same time, it poses a serious threat to the Red Storm.
St. John's will likely need to rely on bench players like Joey De La Rosa, Christian Jones, or even Amar Alibegovic to eat up minutes and hope that they can hold their own tomorrow.
Don't allow Xavier's depth to come into play. This is probably the biggest concern that many Red Storm players and fans have about tomorrow's game, the depth of Xavier's bench against the lack of depth on their bench. If things get close late, the Red Storm will be in deep trouble as it's very likely that they'll have at least four guys play over 30 minutes tomorrow, and there's no way at this point in the season that they will have a ton left in the tank if that's the case.
Therefore Steve Lavin must do a good job of giving his starters some rest in the first half and early moments of the second half to keep them fresh down the stretch, and to do this he will obviously need his bench to come ready to play.
The Bottom Line
In what has become an extremely important conference game for each of these two teams, a win on the road in this one would do wonders for the St. John's tournament hopes. It was right around this time last year when we saw this team get very hot and become contenders for an NCAA Tournament bid, and this year they could be well on their way to another late season run to put themselves in a good position for the tournament again.
A win tomorrow would only continue that run and put them one step closer to the dance.
St. John's gets another huge game from Harrison, and they ride that to a close 67-64 victory.