No. 4 Pittsburgh sits atop the Big East Conference with a 12-1 record.
The St. John’s Red Storm are a Big East pushover no more as they host the Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday afternoon. Pitt will see the return of junior guard Ashton Gibbs.
The Red Storm (16-9 straight-up, 11-13 against the spread) are looking for their first 20-win season since 2002-2003 when Mike Jarvis was head man. Former UCLA coach Steve Lavin took over this season after a six-year stint from Norm Roberts.
St. John’s is also 8-5 SU in the conference, after going 32-70 SU during Roberts’ reign. Lavin inherited a team that was short on victories, but deep in experience. There are six seniors in the top-7 of the rotation, with the other (Dwayne Polee Jr.) a freshman.
The experience didn’t mean much early on with an 11-8 SU start (7-11 ATS). That included going 4-5 SU and ATS in the Big East.
However, Lavin wasn’t hired purely on his coaching ability. He’s been sitting behind an ESPN microphone since leaving UCLA in 2003 and is a charismatic guy who can recruit and motivate. That was evident when defending champ Duke came to Madison Square Garden on Jan. 30 and got buried (93-78 loss as eight-point favorites).
The Red Storm have used that game as a springboard and are 5-1 SU (4-2 ATS) in their last six games overall. They have wins and ‘covers’ in their last three vs. Connecticut (89-72) and at Cincinnati (59-57) and Marquette (80-68). All three were as ‘dogs.
Guard Dwight Hardy (17.1 PPG) has been on fire the last six games at 25.5 PPG. He’s almost single-handily willing this team to victories.
The Panthers (24-2 SU, 11-10 ATS) are ranked No. 4 in the Coaches Poll, the same as the preseason ranking. They have a great shot to make their first Final Four since 1941, but there’s still not a lot of national buzz as they lack a true superstar.
The only losses this year came at home against Notre Dame on January 24, 56-51 as 10 ½-point favorites. There was also an early December defeat to Tennessee (83-76 as eight-point favorites) at the off-campus Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh is cruising in first place in the Big East at 12-1 SU (8-5 ATS) and currently has a five-game-winning streak. The last three were without its best player Gibbs (16.3 PPG), a guard who’s in range when he steps off the bus (46.3 percent in three’s).
Gibbs (knee) will give it a go against St. John’s, although his minutes are unknown. Sophomore Travon Woodall started in his absence, wins at West Virginia (71-66) and Villanova (57-54), and home against South Florida (67-55). Only the South Florida contest was a failure to ‘cover’ as 16 ½-point favorites.
This is a very mature team with three senior starters in guard Brad Wanamaker (12.6 PPG, 5.0 APG), forward Gilbert Brown (11.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG) and center Gary McGhee (7.3 PPG. 8.0 RPG).
Coach Jamie Dixon’s squad is allowing 61.3 PPG, second in the Big East and tied for 26th in the country. It’s solid, but not explosive offensively (76.2 PPG, 35th nationally).
The ‘under’ has gone 7-3 in Pittsburgh’s last 10 games after the ‘over’ started 9-2 in games with totals.
This looks like a tough matchup inside for St. John’s. Pittsburgh is first in the conference in net rebounds (plus 12.1), while St. John’s is 14th (minus 1.1). Even in its last five wins, St. John’s has been outrebounded four times.
Pittsburgh is 5-0 SU and ATS in the last five meetings between the teams. It swept both games last year, including 71-64 as two-point ‘chalk’ in New York.
There are no significant injuries to report with the exception of Gibbs.
ESPN will have the early 9 a.m. (PT) tip-off from Madison Square Garden.