On Saturday, St. John’s will play their last non-conference game of the season at MSG against the Pittsburgh Panthers.
The matchup will be the first time the Johnnies and Panthers face off since they competed in the Old Big East together up until 2013. Before Pitt went to the Atlantic Coast Conference (yes. Pittsburgh is near a coast... of three rivers), the Panthers were a tough, high-level Big East team.
Since then, they have struggled, pushing out a successful coach in Jamie Dixon for tw years of Kevin Stallings and four years of Jeff Capel, both of whom have made Pitt the DePaul of the ACC. In fairness, last year’s Pitt team finished 11th in the ACC, better than their last-place finish in each of the previous three seasons.
Once again, Pitt is in the middle of a very down year, and should provide the Red Storm with an opportunity to beat up on an inferior opponent who is still a Power 6 team.
The Johnnies looked good in their recent win against Colgate, and have a chance to build on that game with a solid win going into the start of Big East play.
The matchup against Pitt will be part of the Gotham Classic at MSG, which also had a game scheduled between Iona and Seton Hall, but that game has been cancelled due to COVID issues with Seton Hall.
Who: St. John’s Red Storm (Big East, 8-2) vs Pittsburgh Panthers (ACC, 3-7)
When: Saturday, December 18, 2021, 12 PM
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, New York
Odds: St. John’s -11
History: Pitt won the last matchup 63-47 on February 24, 2013 in Madison Square Garden, a real grinder; but the Johnnies lead the all time series 34-24.
Pitt is not a great team this year, coming into the game with a 3-7 record that includes a 15-point loss to the Citadel on opening night.
Just like St. John’s, their most recent two opponents are Colgate and Monmouth, the former of which they beat by three and the latter of which they lost to by four. They have a current KenPom ranking of 199 out of 358 and a NET ranking of 255, compared to rankings of 65 and 84 for the Johnnies.
The Panthers rank in the bottom 20 of Division I teams in terms of points per game, and do not shoot the ball well, shooting 42% from the field, 28% from beyond the arc and 64% from the free throw line. Pitt plays at one of the slowest paces in Division I. They do grab offensive rebounds and earn a number of foul shots.
On defense, they slow down opponents, try to minimize penetration. The team’s lack of quickness means they do not force turnovers and they allow a number of three-point attempts; but they rebound misses and don’t foul often.
Part of the reason for their struggles this season has been their depleted backcourt. Pittsburgh lost two key guards before the season, with Nike Sibande tearing his ACL and Ithiel Horton dealing with legal issues from a disorderly conduct arrest on the eve of the season that led to an altercation with a police officer.
Head coach Jeff Capel has not played with a set lineup this year for Pitt, with nine players playing in at least eight games; eight players have started at least three games.
One constant in their starting lineup has been leading scorer and rebounder, 6-9 sophomore forward John Hugley, who has started the season very well with averages of 15.9 points and 8.0 rebounds. He is a true post played, and is dangerous on pick and rolls. He can hit a short jumper, but is more dangerous at the rim, despite being a below-the-rim center.
Alongside him is 6-10 grad student Mouhamadou Gueye, a Stony Brook transfer who averages six points and six rebounds. Gueye is a slim shot blocker who graduated from Curtis High School in Staten Island, and then played JUCO at Monroe College before Stony Brook.
The only other Panther who has started in all 10 games is 6-7 sophomore guard/forward William Jeffress; he averages six points and six rebounds, but only shoots 34% from the field. Off the bench, he is joined in the backcourt by Brooklyn-born 6-5 sophomore guard Femi Odukale, who averages 11 points, four rebounds, and three assists per game. Odukale played at South Shore High School before a prep season in New England.
The other two guards in the rotation for Pitt are 6-4 senior Jamarius Burton, who has played at Wichita State and Texas Tech and averages 10 points, two rebounds, and three assists; and 6-1 senior Onyebuchi Ezeakudo, who averages 2.6 points in 17.5 minutes. He is a former walk on who came to Pitt to study Bioengineering.
From the bench, promising 6-7 freshman wing Nate Santos plays over 20 minutes a game, averaging five points and three rebounds. He scored 25 points combined against Vanderbilt and Towson, but 11 points in the five games since, with two games where he did not score at all.
Daniel Oladapo and Noah Collier both average less than 15 minutes per game, averaging five and two points per game, respectively. Oladapo is a transfer from Oakland, where he was a good scorer and rebounder in their uptempo system.
For those wondering, big man Max Amadasun, former high school teammate of Posh Alexander and Dylan Addae-Wusu at Our Savior Lutheran, has played one minute this season (but scored two points and had a steal).
Keys to the Game
Use what works inside. St. John’s currently has four guys battling for minutes in the paint (Joel Soriano, Esahia Nyiwe, Aaron Wheeler, and O’Mar Stanley). They should ride whichever guy can get hot, and could make use of two bigs at once with Champagnie taking a rest or moving to the 3 against Pitt’s big lineups.
Outplay their guards. St. John’s should have better guards than Pitt, and should use this to their advantage by getting stops in the backcourt and allowing their guards to score in a variety of ways. Settling on the perimeter plays to the Panthers’ strengths; getting into the paint and making them defend quickness and movement will be key.
Dictate the pace. Pitt is not a team that is accustomed to playing as fast as the Johnnies, as they only average 64 possessions per game (compared to St. John’s 74 possessions per game). The Red Storm should dictate the pace of this matchup with fast play and a lot of baskets.
St. John’s takes care of Pitt with an 83-65 win.