Pittsburgh-St. John's Preview
By NOEY KUPCHAN
(AP) -- Pittsburgh knows it needs to pick up the pace after suffering back-to-back losses to ranked opponents.
Fortunately for the Panthers, their schedule gets a bit softer from here on out.
Looking to get back on track, No. 20 Pitt tries for an eighth win in nine matchups with St. John's as these Big East rivals square off for the only time in the regular season Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
While the Panthers (20-7, 8-6) opened a stretch of three straight games against Top 25 foes with a 62-52 win at then-No. 17 Cincinnati on Feb. 9, they weren't able to keep up in the last two. After a 79-69 loss at then-No. 18 Marquette last Saturday, Pitt was limited to its fewest points this season in Monday's 51-42 home defeat to No. 25 Notre Dame.
"Our guys are extremely disappointed and I'm disappointed," coach Jamie Dixon said. "We haven't played well and obviously we're a team that put up good numbers offensively and defensively and we haven't in the last two games.
"We've got to get something fixed and we've got to get it changed. We've got to work on it and get ready for Sunday."
The Panthers, whose plus-6.6 rebounding differential ranks second in the Big East, have been outrebounded by a combined 73-49 in those back-to-back losses. They've lost the rebounding battle in all but one of their defeats this season.
"That's two games in a row and we've been drilling it and we've been talking about it," Dixon added. "In our losses there's a common denominator and the rebounding has been the thing to stand out."
Though its recent efforts have left much room for improvement, Pitt may be able to get things together during a more favorable stretch of its schedule. The Panthers host last-place South Florida and Villanova next week before concluding their regular-season slate at woeful DePaul.
Pitt has had its way with the Red Storm (16-10, 8-6) of late, taking seven of eight meetings with several by lopsided margins. The Panthers have won three of four at Madison Square Garden in that stretch, including a 73-59 victory over St. John's in last year's Big East tournament.
The Red Storm are coming off their fifth consecutive home win, 69-54 over South Florida on Wednesday in Queens. Freshman Jakarr Sampson led the way with 20 points and D'Angelo Harrison scored 18 as St. John's welcomed back coach Steve Lavin following a two-game absence due to the death of his father.
Sir'Dominic Pointer also came up big with 12 points, 10 boards and six assists off the bench. The sophomore swingman totaled two points on 1-of-6 shooting in the team's previous two games, losses at then-No. 9 Syracuse and then-No. 12 Louisville.
St. John's is 5-0 when Pointer scores at least 12.
"Sir'Dominic returned to form," Lavin said. "It's that Costco kind of performance from every aisle he seems to pick something out and really excel."
While Wednesday's win was never really in doubt, Lavin believes his team is capable of better. St. John's limited the Bulls to 36.8 percent shooting and had 19 assists with only eight turnovers.
"There are some real positives, but we're going to have to play at a much higher level if we want to beat the teams that we're facing the rest of the way," he said.
The Red Storm have dropped four of six against Top 25 opponents this season. A win Sunday could boost their NCAA tournament resume.
"I have to let them know we have a chance to do something special," Lavin said. "Anything less than our best won't get it done."
Updated February 23, 2013