Head coach: Steve Lavin - 3rd season at St. John’s; 10th overall (177-99) - 145-78 in seven seasons at UCLA; 32-21 in third season at St. John’s. Led the Bruins to an Elite Eight appearance in 1996-97 and four Sweet 16 appearances (1997-98, 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2001-02). Coached just four games in 2011-12 while recovering from cancer.
You should know: That the Red Storm has been wildly inconsistent this season. They trailed 36-19 at halftime of Saturday’s 67-51 loss to Georgetown and fell 98-87 in overtime at Villanova after leading most of the second half. St. John’s led UNC-Asheville by 17 in the second half and by 12 with 12:11 remaining before falling, 72-65. They trailed by 12 at halftime of the early-December victory (57-49) against New Jersey Institute of Technology and were down by 13 in a 79-68 victory over Florida Gulf Coast. Baylor, which defeated St. John’s, 97-78, in the mid-November Charleston Classic, out-rebounded the Red Storm, 41-20. They lost to Murray State, 72-67, after leading by 13 in the first half, and came back to defeat Detroit in the season-opener, 77-74, after trailing by eight at halftime?St. John’s shoots just .614 from the free-throw line, .435 from the field and .314 from three-point range. They were 1-of-9 from beyond the arc in a 53-52 win at Cincinnati, 2-of-9 against Fordham, 3-of-11 versus San Francisco, 3-of-10 against Florida Gulf Coast, 2-of-11 versus Holy Cross, 2-of-14 against Murray State, and 2-of-10 versus Charleston?Notre Dame holds a narrow 20-18 all-time record against St. John’s. The Irish have never won more than three in a row against St. John’s, and that came in 1969-71. Since joining the Big East, Notre Dame is 11-10 against the Red Storm, including four straight losses in Madison Square Garden and five losses in the last eight overall.
Top losses: Moe Harkless (15.3 ppg., 8.6 rpg.), God’sgift Achiuwa (9.0 ppg., 5.6 rpg., red-shirting).
Top players: D’Angelo Harrison is the heart and soul of the Red Storm’s young basketball team. After averaging 16.8 points per game as a freshman, the 6-foot-3, 209-pound sophomore has scored at least 20 points in 11 of 16 games and is averaging 20.6 points per game. He is the Red Storm’s lone consistent three-point threat with 37 (.333) to go with a team-leading 29 steals. He scored a career-high 36 points in a Jan. 2 loss at Villanova. Harrison tossed in 27 points versus Murray State, 26 points against South Carolina, and 25 versus St. Francis (New York).
The Red Storm has gotten a boost from willowy freshman Jakarr Sampson, who is averaging 13.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-8, 204-pounder scored a career-high 22 points against San Francisco and had 15 points and 17 rebounds against New Jersey Institute of Technology. He also had 20 points against Holy Cross, and 16 points and 10 rebounds against Fordham.
Chris Obekpa, a 6-foot-9, 223-pound freshman, is a game-changer in the middle for St. John’s. He already has 82 blocked shots (5.1 per game), including 11 against Fordham, nine versus St. Francis (N.Y.), and eight against Detroit. But Obekpa is shooting just .413 from the field and .240 (6-of-25) from the free-throw line. He averages 4.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Obekpa leads the Red Storm in offensive rebounds with 35.
Three other sophomores round out the main contributors for St. John’s: 6-foot-2, 182-pound Phil Greene IV, 6-foot-6, 211-pound Amir Garrett, and 6-foot-5, 198-pound Sir’Dominic Pointer.
Greene averages 8.9 points per game and is second on the team in three-pointers with just 14 on 49 attempts (.286). He scored 24 points with five rebounds and seven assists against Baylor. He tossed in 20 points with six rebounds and six assists versus Detroit.
Garrett, who averages 6.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, scored 11 points against the Irish last season in the Garden. He had 15 points and 11 rebounds against South Carolina in late-November.
Pointer averages 5.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. He was one of the few positives in the loss to Georgetown Saturday when he tallied 11 points with three rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocked shots.
Brey on playing St. John’s in MSG: “We’re going to a place where we got beat last year. We exercised some demons last Monday (at Cincinnati) at a place where we got beat last year. Maybe we can do that again.
“We’ve played well in the tournament there, but we haven’t played well there during the regular season. The reason we haven’t played well there is they’ve pressured us. We’ve turned the ball over there. We had won nine in a row last time we were in there and they snapped it.
“They’re going to play that zone, but they’ve got the shot blocker back there. It’s hard to get stuff around the bucket. We’re going to have to knock down some shots against them, and then we’re going to have to guard some guys that can go.”
Prister’s take: Just when it appeared the Irish would get to 3-0 in Big East play for the first time in their 18 seasons in the league, Connecticut out-played the Irish on their home court and came away with a victory at Purcell Pavilion, where Notre Dame has been virtually invincible in recent years.
Now the Irish must take on a dangerous but inconsistent St. John’s team that is coming off a mauling at the hands of No. 19 Georgetown. Notre Dame has lost four straight to the Red Storm in Madison Square Garden, and six of the last eight. The Irish shot just 4-of-31 from three-point range last February when the Red Storm ended Notre Dame’s nine-game Big East winning streak.
If the Irish shoot like that again, they’ll lose to Steve Lavin’s sophomore-dominated squad. Notre Dame also cannot afford for the Red Storm to have one of its infrequent hot shooting nights like it did against Villanova when they connected on 10-of-20 from three-point range. That kind of shooting, however, has been the exception to the rule this year for the Red Storm.
Look for the Irish to play a lot more zone against St. John’s than they did in Saturday’s loss to the Huskies. Only D’Angelo Harrison has provided any consistency from beyond the arc. Shot-blocking extraordinaire Chris Obekpa will make it a challenging night for Jack Cooley, who is on an island when fellow big man Garrick Sherman shrinks under the spotlight, which has happened a lot lately.
Notre Dame needs a return to form from Scott Martin, whose hot shooting took a nosedive against Connecticut when the Huskies held him to just three points. Martin also needs to take advantage of his physical advantage against the wispy Sampson, who gives away about 20 pounds to the sixth-year senior.
A road victory will require a better shooting night from its guards (Jerian Grant was just 5-of-18 against UConn), and a stellar defensive effort from Pat Connaughton against Harrison when the Irish are in man.
Just when you think the Irish are about to take a dip, Brey gets his guys up for the challenge. Just as they did a week ago at Cincinnati, Notre Dame rises to the occasion and hands St. John’s its third straight loss.
Pointspread: Notre Dame by 6
Prister’s Prediction: Notre Dame 72, St. John’s 63
Prister’s record: 13-3 straight up; 7-6 vs. points