Coming off their breakthrough win against a ranked team -- a 61-58 victory over Notre Dame -- St. John's seemed primed for a strong performance at Pitt on Wednesday, only to fall flat in a 20-point loss. It was no coincidence that freshman Moe Harkless played only 22 minutes because of a mildly sprained ankle, a major reason for the Red Storm's 30-14 rebounding deficit.
But 11th-seeded St. John's (13-18) has a chance to avenge that loss against the 12th-seeded Panthers (16-15) in a Big East Tournament first-round game at 2:30 p.m. today at Madison Square Garden. Harkless, who is expected to be named Big East rookie of the year, is healthy and could be a difference-maker.
Red Storm assistant coach Mike Dunlap declined to blame the Pitt loss on Harkless' injury, but he admitted it was a factor.
"Pittsburgh did a great job on the boards," said Dunlap, who is running the team while coach Steve Lavin continues his recovery from prostate cancer surgery. "That was glaring. With Moe being our best defensive rebounder, that didn't help us. But I thought we were awful defensively in terms of our effort level in that game, which is unusual."
The recent three-game winning streak that culminated with the Notre Dame victory has St. John's starting five freshmen feeling optimistic about what they might accomplish this week. "I expect to win the whole thing," Sir'Dominic Pointer said Monday. "We've got to play the way we did against Notre Dame, UCLA and DePaul."
That starts with a much better effort on defense and rebounding against a Pitt team that is strong up front with Nasir Robinson, Dante Taylor and Lamar Patterson. A healthy Harkless will help. The 6-8 forward averaged 15.0 points and 8.6 rebounds and was the only freshman to earn honorable mention all-conference honors. That recognition suggests he should become the first rookie of the year from St. John's since David Russell in 1980.
"He's worthy of that," Dunlap said. "For me, the highlight has been his defensive rebounding. There's nothing glamorous about rebounding. It's like being an NFL offensive lineman. He's willing to get in the trenches to do some dirty work for us."
The knock on Harkless was that he tended to coast because the game came easily. Dunlap said the Storm's coaching staff has challenged Harkless in that department and that he has responded well.
"He may not smack a guy in the chest and move him out of the way to get a rebound, but he competes like the dickens up top," Dunlap said. "He'll go and get tough rebounds. We saw that against Notre Dame and UCLA. DePaul was a one-possession game, and Moe had four of the last five rebounds to cap off our defense on the misses. We couldn't do that against Pitt without him."