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St. John's vs Pittsburgh preview: Johnnies try to make magic happen again in the Garden

St. John's faces a team tied with them in the standings.

Jim McIsaac

For the St. John's Red Storm (16-10, 8-6 Big East), today's tilt against the Pittsburgh Panthers in Madison Square Garden at noon is a big game for NCAA Tournament legitimacy. They can still make the NCAA Tournament or other postseason with a loss; but a win would put the Storm on the right side of the bubble, and not leave their fate up to the failures of bubble teams and a magical Big East Tournament run.

Game Information
Tip Off: 12:00 PM Eastern
Vs. #20/ #22 Pittsburgh Panthers
(20-7, 8-6 Big East; coach, Jamie Dixon)
Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
(capacity: 19,939)
Radio: Bloomberg 1130
Announcers: Eamon McAnaney and John Celestand

The Big East is tight and full of parity. It's been hard for teams to distinguish themselves from each other in the scrum of good-not-quite-great teams.

With Pittsburgh also at the eight win mark, this game is a chance to right their own rudder after two losses to ranked teams.

Both teams have won seven of their last ten games, with the Red Storm coming off of a win over South Florida. Both teams are much improved from last season; St. John's surpassed their 13 wins of last year nearly a month ago, and Pitt passed last year's regular season mark of 16 wins around the same time.

It's late in the year, time for the Red Storm to take a win or two that they weren't expected to. If they're going to get to the NCAA Tournament, that's the way they need to get there... just like Dwight Hardy and crew did in the Garden in 2011.

Scouting St. John's

After a solid win over the South Florida Bulls, coach Steve Lavin explained that he was disappointed in the lack of execution (which sparked a blistering speech to his team after a timeout):

"There was a stretch in the second half where we lost the concentration level that we need to have to put good teams away. We can’t have those lapses because that’s when teams will go on runs against us. I understand teams are going to make runs, I just wasn’t happy with our closeouts and a couple of rebounds where we didn’t put a body on someone."

The Storm continue to play low turnover offense (TOs on 17% of their possessions, third best in league play) to maximize their chances (and streaky shooting); the defense, especially inside the arc, where opponents shoot 45%, is the key. Steve Lavin says he wants to get Christian Jones and Felix Balamou more involved on Sunday, as well.

Scouting Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Panthers were streaking up until two games against ranked opponents, Marquette and Notre Dame.

Jamie Dixon's squad lost both games, giving up 60% shooting inside the arc against Marquette and going 0/8 from beyond the arc versus Notre Dame, along with allowing the Fighting Irish to rebound 40% of their misses in one game. Each one of those results is an outlier; and tied with St. John's in the standings, one can expect the Panthers to come out with a fury and fire to get themselves on the right track.

Jamie Dixon has his Panthers closer to his ideal than they were last year. This season, they are physical, tougher defensively at the rim...

But after the Notre Dame game, Dixon was bothered by his team's lack of aggressiveness.

We got out-rebounded, gave up 60-percent from the field, didn’t guard well enough, and our shot selection wasn’t very good. I thought even with the lead I didn’t feel like our offense was very good. I thought we played hard defensively when we got some turnovers and steals that got us some transition buckets, but again, I didn’t think we played well even when we had the lead, to be honest. That really speaks to 40 minutes of not playing to the level we’ve been playing to. We’ve got to get something fixed and we’ve got to get it changed."

Obviously, with a week to prepare, Dixon plans on a physical, defense-first approach to the game.

Pitt excels with a stout defense - third best per-possession in the conference. Their keys are forcing opponents out to the perimeter to take threes and making them miss, and a strong rebounding effort on both ends of the floor. They rebound 37% of their own misses (fifth in Big East) while grabbing 67% of opponents' missed shots (4th in the league).

Keys to the Game

Match aggressiveness.

Pitt will be aggressive on defense and active on offense; St. John's has to match them with aggression and smarts. Phil Greene IV needs one of his better games at point guard; he shot 8/12 against Pitt last year on February 29th and has been a capable passer in recent games. Pitt's Tray Woodall will test him, as will freshman point guard James Robinson.

Match physicality.

Rebounding, especially on the offensive glass, will be a key. Steven Adams (7'0", 250 pounds) and Talib Zanna (6'9" 230 pounds) are huge presences in the paint, combining to grab 5 offensive rebounds per game in Big East play. Once again, Chris Obekpa and Jakarr Sampson have to attack the glass with effort.

Be on the line... and be better on the line.

Pittsburgh uses aggression to get trips to the free throw line (free throw attempted/ field goal attempted rate of a little under 41%). Two problems, though - the first is that shoot 64% at the line. Steven Adams, Lamar Patterson, Trey Ziegler, and Talib Zanna are all sub-60% free throw shooters. The second issue is that they give up free throws on the other end. St. John's has to minimize the Panther trips to the line while getting freebies of their own.

Big time performance from D`Angelo.

D`Angelo Harrison - the Red Storm's most offensively versatile player - has to shine. He's found ways to score in the last two games (putting up 18 points apiece in each contest), but has had lulls in Big East play where he's only shooting 29% from beyond the arc. His foul-drawing proclivity has helped him; he averages 5.4 free throw attempts per game.

Prediction: St. John's will battle, but lose because of an advantage in offensive rebounding from the Panthers, 65-63.

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