Panthers eye turnaround, strong finish

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Pitt and St. John's enter today's Big East Conference game with identical league records and share seventh place in the standings with Villanova, but they are far from equal in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee.

Or so say the resident sports mathematicians who forecast the NCAA tournament field. Pitt is comfortably in the field as a No. 6 seed, while St. John's is outside of the bubble looking in.

The reasons are fairly simple. St. John's stumbled in its nonconference schedule, losing to Murray State, Baylor, San Francisco and UNC-Asheville, and it has amassed its conference record with victories against the dregs of the league. Its best league wins came against Connecticut and Notre Dame at home. Pitt, meanwhile, lost only once in the nonconference, to highly respected Michigan, and has impressive victories against Syracuse and Georgetown, which share first place and are vying for top seeds in the NCAA tournament.

"There is a sense of urgency as there should be this time of the year," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. "This is a great opportunity for our young team to take a step forward.

"There's no doubt this stage of the season you're aware you have to continue to produce on the court so you increase the probability of making the NCAA tournament. The best way to ensure you're in the NCAA is take care of business on your home court and steal a win somewhere on the road.

"Having worked at ESPN for seven years and covering the early rounds as a broadcaster, you're aware of the bracketology. But there's not a lot of focus on that. We're focused on the task at hand, trying to get wins and build our resume and present a stronger body of work the selection committee will be looking at on Selection Sunday."

Scouting report

  • Matchup:

    No. 20 Pitt (20-7, 8-6 Big East) vs. St. John's (16-10, 8-6), noon today, Madison Square Garden, New York.

  • TV, Radio, Internet:

    Root Sports, KDKA-FM (93.7),

  • Pitt:

    Has won 8 of its past 10 games against St. John's. ... Senior G Tray Woodall (10.9 ppg, 5.3 apg) needs 12 assists to move past Carl Krauser and into fifth place in assists in the school record books.

  • St. John's:

    Has lost three of its past five games after winning five in a row. ... D'Angelo Harrison (18.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) is the third-leading scorer in the Big East. ... JaKarr Sampson (14.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) is the leading candidate for Big East rookie of the year. ... C Chris Obekpa (3.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg) leads the Big East with 107 blocks.

  • Hidden stat:

    itt freshman G James Robinson is on course to break the school record for assist-to-turnover ratio for a freshman. Robinson's ratio is 3.03-1 and would beat Sean Miller's record (2.27-1), set in 1987-88.

While St. John's has more to gain with a victory today, Pitt needs one to stay in a strong position. The Panthers likely would have to go 1-3 over the final four games of the regular season to fall out of the 68-team field. That's unlikely with games left against South Florida and DePaul, which are in last place and 13th in the conference.

Winning all four remaining games, however, could get the Panthers a better seed, perhaps as high as a No. 4 if they win a couple of games in the Big East tournament. A 3-1 record likely would mean the status quo (a No. 6 or 7 seed), and going 2-2 could mean dropping down to a No. 8 or 9.

"Every game is important," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "The first 27 were important and the next four are important, too. ... We have to focus on the next one. No matter how many you win, no game becomes less important."

That would mean reversing a recent trend. The Panthers have dropped consecutive games for the first time since losing the first two games of the conference schedule to Cincinnati and Rutgers. They lost at Marquette by 10 and by 9 at home to Notre Dame after having a 16-point lead in the first half.

St. John's halted a two-game losing streak Wednesday with a 69-54 home victory against last-place South Florida. Whereas Pitt played the most difficult portion of its schedule in recent weeks, St. John's still has games at Providence and Marquette and a home game against Marquette.

"Pittsburgh presents a great challenge," Lavin said. "They're a very physical basketball team. ... Our young team understands we'll have to play our best basketball to win."

Pitt hasn't been very physical in its two-game slide. Notre Dame and Marquette beat up the Panthers on the boards, winning the rebounding margin by 15 and 9. The Irish and Golden Eagles also outhustled the Panthers for loose balls. The Panthers also must defend better. St. John's sophomore D'Angelo Harrison, the third-leading scorer in the Big East, is averaging 18.3 points per game.

"We know how dangerous he is," Dixon said. "He's different in a lot of ways than other high-scoring guards. His range is better than most. He can shoot going to his right and he's become more of a playmaker in his second year."

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First Published February 24, 2013 5:00 AM


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