QUEENS, N.Y. -
With wins in seven of their last 10 matchups, head coach Steve Lavin and the St. John's basketball team (16-10, 8-6 BIG EAST) look to continue their push toward the postseason on Sunday when No. 20/22 Pitt (20-7, 8-6 BIG EAST) visits The Garden. The noon matchup airs in the New York area on the MSG Network with announcers Eamon McAnaney and John Celestand. The contest can also be heard live on the official radio flagship of St. John's Basketball, Bloomberg Radio 1130-AM, on Sirius Ch. 92 and XM Ch. 190, and on RedStormSports.com (subscription), with announcers John Minko and Brandon Tierney.
The Last Meeting
March 6, 2012
New York, N.Y. (Madison Square Garden)
Strong Second Half Leads Pitt Past St. John's, 73-59, In BIG EAST First Round
Freshman Moe Harkless scored a game-high 25 points, the most for a St. John's player in a BIG EAST Tournament game since 2002, to lead 12th-seeded St. John's as "The Fresh Five" took the court for the first time ever in the postseason, but 13th-seeded Pitt fired at a 57.1 percent clip in the second half to extend a five-point halftime advantage and defeat the Red Storm, 73-59, in first round action.
Lavin is back in 2012-13 after posting a 2-2 record last season while making a full recovery from prostate cancer surgery (Oct. 6, 2011). Dr. Peter Scardino of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center placed Lavin on a modified schedule in 2011-12 that kept him off the sideline, enabling Lavin to better focus on a full recuperation, while simultaneously securing the No. 8 recruiting class in the nation per HoopScoop.com. St. John's 2012 rookie class is comprised of eight standout student-athletes representing five countries. The highly-acclaimed group followed a 2011 class ranked No. 3 nationally by ESPN. Lavin's record at St. John's is 39-22.
St. John's is 2-4 on the season against ranked opponents, topping then-No. 20/20 Notre Dame at The Garden (67-63, Jan. 15) and winning at then-No. 14/15 Cincinnati (53-52, Jan. 5). The Red Storm has slayed nine Top 25 giants during the Lavin Era, eight coming with the third-year head coach on the sidelines. According to RPIRankings.com (Feb. 22), St. John's owns a current RPI of 57, with the 29th-toughest schedule in the nation (12-3 home; 4-5 road; 0-2 neutral). That includes a 5-2 BIG EAST home record. With a 4-2 record in 2012-13 at The Garden, St. John's is 404-271 (.599) all-time at "The World's Most Famous Arena," which has served as a home court for St. John's basketball for more than 77 years. STJ looks to improve upon a 4-8 mark from 2011-12.
Sunday marks the 58th meeting in the series with St. John's holding a 34-23 advantage. In the last meeting, Moe Harkless scored 25 points but the Red Storm couldn't overcome 45.1 percent shooting from Pitt as the Panthers took a 73-59 win in the BIG EAST Championship first round on March 6, 2012. The last time an unranked St. John's team defeated a ranked Pitt team was on Feb. 19, 2011, at The Garden when the Lavin-led Red Storm topped the No. 4/4 Panthers, 60-59, on Dwight Hardy's famous "Baryshnikov" shot to beat the buzzer.
A Preseason All-BIG EAST Second Team selection, Harrison is third in the league in scoring with 18.3 points per game (T-42nd nationally), and his 78.0 percent success rate at the free throw line ranks 13th among all BIG EAST players. The six-time BIG EAST Honor Roll member's 2.2 made 3-pointers per game rate fifth in the conference, he holds the team lead and is 15th in the league with 1.42 steals per game and his 35.1 minutes per game rank sixth in the BIG EAST. He is currently firing at a rate of 40.4 percent from the field and owns a 31.8 mark from beyond the arc. He has reached the 20-point plateau in 13 of St. John's first 26 games and scored a career-high 36 at Villanova (Jan. 2).
After averaging 7.6 ppg as a freshman, guard Phil Greene IV is currently scoring at a 9.2 ppg clip and showing his ability as a dynamic playmaker despite a hip injury. His 2.8 assists per game are in the top 20 among all BIG EAST players and his 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio is ranked seventh. In the last seven games he is averaging 11.3 ppg, 3.1 assists and is shooting .933 (14-of-15) from the line. He has committed only nine turnovers in the last 12 games (379 minutes).
Sophomore swingman Amir Garrett spent the offseason in professional baseball as a left-handed pitcher within the Cincinnati Reds minor league system. He is averaging 5.4 ppg and 3.4 rebounds with an impressive .470 field goal percentage in 16.9 minutes per game in a reserve role.
Motor City sophomore Sir'Dominic Pointer is averaging 7.6 ppg on a league-second 59.0 percent shooting mark, with 6.3 rpg (15th) and 1.54 spg (T-ninth) in BIG EAST play. St. John's toughest on-ball defender is heating up, averaging 8.3 ppg on 56.9 percent shooting from the field (33-of-58) with 6.5 rebounds (21-of-78 offensive), 2.8 assists and 1.7 steals across the last 12 games.
Six-time BIG EAST Rookie of the Week and Rookie of the Year candidate JaKarr Sampson leads BIG EAST freshmen in both scoring (14.7 ppg, 15th overall) and rebounding (6.7 rpg, 11th overall). His rejections (1.2, 11th) and offensive rebounds per game (2.1, T-13th) are listed among the BIG EAST Conference leaders.
A game-changing shotblocker, 6-9 Chris Obekpa -- the Defensive Player of the Year candidate with the 7-5 wingspan who leads the nation in rejections with 107 -- swatted a school-record 11 shots in the victory vs. Fordham (Dec. 8). He tied the St. John's single-season record (76) in only 15 games, and eclipsed it in 16, and is averaging 4.1 bpg. In conference play, he averages a league-leading 3.1 swats and is tied for ninth with a team-best 6.6 rebounds.
Texas A&M transfer point guard Jamal Branch has played in 10 games, drawing seven starts with five wins. In BIG EAST play he is averaging 9.0 ppg, hitting at a 50.0 percent clip from the field (33-of-66, 11th), and adding 2.6 assists and 1.6 steals (T-10th). He scored a career-best 18 at DePaul (Jan. 19).
French sharpshooter Marc-Antoine Bourgault has caught fire in the last five games, which includes four starts. He is averaging 8.4 ppg during that stretch in 23.2 minutes, which includes a 40.0 percent field goal mark beyond the arc (10-of-25).
Athletic wing Felix Balamou continues to be a key playmaker. In his last 23 appearances he has averaged 2.1 ppg, connecting on 20-of-45 field goals (.444) while contributing 1.1 rpg in 8.5 mpg.
The final member of Lavin's eight-man recruiting class, freshman Christian Jones was the surprise of the preseason. In exhibition play he averaged 12.5 ppg on 66.7 percent shooting with 8.5 rebounds, and has scored in 13-of-18 appearances on the year.
JUCO transfer Orlando Sanchez will not participate Sunday as he awaits an eligibility ruling from the NCAA. Harvard transfer Max Hooper is eligible for game participation in the 2013-14 season.
Senior big man God'sgift Achiuwa, who averaged 9.5 ppg and 5.6 rpg in his JUCO transfer year in 2011-12, is in the midst of a redshirt season. Achiuwa, a member of St. John's University's prestigious President's Society, could complete Master's degree requirements by the end of 2013-14.
March begins on the road for the Red Storm with a visit to Providence on Saturday, March 2 (8 p.m., SNY).
NCAA Bubble Watch: BIG EAST By The Numbers
In assessing the young Red Storm's NCAA Tournament chances, the following is a breakdown of success by total wins for BIG EAST teams (following the BIG EAST Tournament) since the first year of the league's automatic bid (1982-83).
17 overall wins -- 167 of 209 teams reached the NCAA (79.9 percent)
18 overall wins -- 161 of 189 (85.2 percent)
19 overall wins -- 145 of 160 (90.6 percent)
20 overall wins -- 147 of 152 (96.7percent)
In 2011-12, nine of 11 BIG EAST teams with at least 17 wins after the BIG EAST Tournament reached the NCAA Tournament, with only Pitt and Seton Hall failing to qualify. Eight of the nine 20-win teams made it (Seton Hall missed).
Taking a look at conference win totals, only two teams since the 2005-06 BIG EAST expansion -- and eight in league history -- failed to be selected for the NCAA Tournament after mounting a 10-win campaign. Pitt in 1996-97, Providence in 2008-09 and Villanova in 1993-94 were all NIT teams after going 10-8 in league play.
Seton Hall in 2002-03 and Syracuse in 2001-02 and 2006-07 both were in the NIT after posting a 10-6 conference record.
Villanova in 1991-92 and West Virginia in 1996-97 were NIT teams after going 11-7.
Over The Last 10 Games (7-3)
One of the keys to the Red Storm's five-game win streak surge between Jan. 15 and Jan. 27 -- its best win streak since a six-game run under Steve Lavin in 2010-11 -- and the five games since was its effectiveness at turning defensive pressure into offensive success. Over the last 10 games -- of which the Red Storm has won seven -- St. John's has held opponents to a stingy .395 field goal percentage overall and a stifling .287 from long range. The Red Storm was able to convert that defense .416 field goal percentage on the offensive end.
Backed by the game-changing shotblocker Chris Obekpa, the Red Storm defense swatted 56 shots during the run, while only facing 33 rejections on the offensive end.
Slow starts -- which St. John's was criticized for early in 2012-13 -- became a thing of the past as St. John's did not trail at the half in any of the seven wins during the stretch.
No. 20/22 Pittsburgh comes into Sunday's matchup at 20-7 and 8-6 in the BIG EAST, tied with St. John's for seventh in the conference. Pitt has won three out of their last five, but have dropped two in a row, including a 51-42 loss to No. 25/25 Notre Dame. The Panthers have an RPI of 40, a strength of schedule of 46 and were projected a 6-seed in Joe Lunardi's latest bracketology.
Statistically, the Panthers are one of the top defensive teams in the BIG EAST, allowing just 59 points per game, the second-best mark in the conference. From behind the arc, opponents are shooting just .284 against the Pitt defense, also second-best in the league.
Individually, redshirt junior swingman Lamar Patterson is the Panthers' leading scorer at 11.1 points per contest in BIG EAST play. Senior guard Tray Woodall is the only other Panther averaging double figures at 10.1 per contest in league play. Freshman center Steven Adams is Pitt's leading rebounder, grabbing 6.5 boards per contest, 11th-best in league play.
Head Coach Jamie Dixon is in his 10th year at the helm in Pittsburgh with a 258-84 record. His .757 winning percentage is the seventh-highest among all active Division I coaches, while his .658 winning percentage in BIG EAST regular season and Championship games is the top mark all-time in the conference.