St. John's head coach Steve Lavin looks on against the...

St. John's head coach Steve Lavin looks on against the University of South Florida. (Feb. 20, 2013) Credit: Errol Anderson

St. John’s coach Steve Lavin playfully took issue with the notion that his emotional outburst during the Red Storm’s recent win over South Florida was something out of the ordinary. Guard D’Angelo Harrison described it as “blowing a gasket,” but Lavin said that was one of a series of blown gaskets and added that he’s probably broken five clipboards this season.

“All along the line, gaskets have been blown, kids kicked out of practice and kids benched,” a smiling Lavin said Saturday afternoon. “I’m always going to find ways to elevate our kids’ play.”

Still, Lavin admitted there’s a definite sense of urgency for the Red Storm (16-10, 8-6 Big East) in its conference game against No. 20 Pitt (20-7, 8-6) at noon Sunday at Madison Square Garden. A win would assure at least a .500 record in conference play, which is one of the customary requirements for an NCAA Tournament bid, and it would be considered a “quality” win against a ranked opponent.

“Pitt is a very significant game,” Lavin said. “We’re tied in the Big East standings; it’s a home game against a quality opponent, and it’s late in the year. Put that all together, and it’s a big game.”

Although point guard Jamal Branch tested his sprained left knee in practice on Friday for the first time since being injured on Feb. 2, Lavin said it’s likely Branch will miss his fifth straight game. But the fact that Branch at least is back on the court is an indication he might be able to return this season.

“My concern is that he’s still tentative,” Lavin said. “He’s favoring the injury. That’s a dangerous combination unless he recovers well. If he continues to make progress and the knee is responding to treatment, there’s a good opportunity he could be back before the end of the season. But there’s nothing definitive.”

Once again, Lavin plans to go with a three-guard lineup, including Marc-Antoine Bourgault with regular backcourt starters Harrison and Phil Greene together with forwards JaKarr Sampson and Sir’Dominic Pointer. Although 6-9 Chris Obekpa will come off the bench, Lavin said, “Obekpa will see big minutes against Pitt because of his size. He’s comfortable coming off the bench, and we’ve won seven of 10 with the small lineup. It seems it’s helped Marco, and it hasn’t hurt Chris.”

Senior point guard Tray Woodall and rugged forwards Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna all are averaging just over 10 points per game, and the Panthers also start two freshmen in 7-foot center Steven Adams and guard James Robinson with Brentwood’s J.J. Moore featured in the sixth-man role.