Head coach: Steve Lavin - 3rd season at St. John’s; 10th overall (184-104) - 145-78 in seven seasons at UCLA; 39-26 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: The Red Storm has lost two in a row, four of its last five, and five of its last seven after starting out 6-3 in conference play. St. John’s won five in a row in Big East play at one point. But they’ve lost each of their last four road games (Georgetown by 12, Syracuse by 19, Louisville by 14, and Providence by three), and have tasted victory just twice since a Jan. 30 overtime victory against DePaul?This is a sophomore-freshman driven team with none of the top eight scorers beyond their second season in the program?Notre Dame has lost four of its last five to St. John’s, including a 69-68 setback in February of 2010 when Luke Harangody went down with a knee injury?The Irish hold a narrow 20-19 all-time lead against St. John’s, but the series is tied 11-11 since the Irish joined the Big East in 1995?The longest winning streak in the series is just three games. The Irish defeated St. John’s in 1969-70-71. St. John’s currently is on a three-game winning streak against the Irish and would set the series mark of four with a victory tonight.
Top players: The Red Storm will be without their leading scorer and the Big East’s No. 3 scorer in 6-foot-3, 209-pound sophomore D’Angelo Harrison, who recently was dismissed from the team by head coach Steve Lavin for the balance of the season. Harrison was averaging 17.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game while logging the most minutes (35.0 per game) on the team. Harrison was far and away the Red Storm’s top three-point threat with 58 of the team’s 110 three-pointers.
The role of leading scorer now falls to 6-foot-8, 204-pound freshman Jakarr Sampson, who is well equipped for the role. He’s scored at least 18 points in seven of the Red Storm’s last 10 games, including 22 points at Providence Saturday, 20 against South Florida on Feb. 20, and 21 at Syracuse on Feb. 10. As much as anyone, Sampson led St. John’s to a 67-63 victory over Notre Dame on Jan. 15 when he scored a team-high 17 points in just 13 minutes of action.
Just under double-digits in scoring is 6-foot-2, 182-pound sophomore Phil Greene IV, who is averaging 9.3 points per game, including 13 against the Irish in January. Greene scored 21 points at Louisville on Feb. 14. He’s scored in double digits in eight of the last nine games. In Harrison’s absence, Greene becomes the Red Storm’s top three-point shooter with 23 converted, although he’s shooting just 23.7 percent.
Just back from the injury list is 6-foot-3, 176-pound freshman Jamal Branch, who sprained his left knee against Georgetown on Feb. 2 and missed the next four games. He’s averaging 7.1 points per game for the season, but has struggled upon his return. He logged just three minutes against Pittsburgh on Feb. 24, and shot 1-of-8 in 30 minutes of action at Providence Saturday.
Sir’Dominic Pointer, a 6-foot-5, 198-pound sophomore, has had four double-doubles in Big East play while averaging 6.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. He had 13 points and 10 rebounds at Providence Saturday. His playing time has been on the rise, logging at least 30 minutes in eight of the last 11 games, including 39 against Pittsburgh on Feb. 24.
Amir Garrett, a 6-foot-6, 211-pound sophomore, has provided a steady contribution at 5.6 points and 4.4 rebounds in just 20.3 minutes of action per game. He scored 11 points against the Irish in January. One of the reasons Garrett’s time is limited, particularly in end-game situations, is his .500 shooting from the free-throw line (31-of-62).
The Red Storm’s second-leading rebounder is 6-foot-9, 223-pound freshman Chris Obekpa, who pulls down 6.0 boards per game despite playing just 25.5 minutes per contest. He’s averaging eight rebounds per game over the last four, including 12 at Louisville on Feb. 14.
Compensating for the loss of Harrison, at least as it pertains to three-point shooting, is 6-foot-6, 209-pound sophomore Marco Bourgault, who hails from France. He had 11 three-pointers in a six-game stretch leading into the last two games against Louisville and Syracuse when he missed all five of his attempts. He’s made 19 three-pointers on the season.
Prister’s take: When it comes to playing St. John’s, the Irish can take nothing for granted. The good news is the game will be played at Purcell Pavilion, not Madison Square Garden, where the Irish have lost five in a row to the Red Storm, including a 67-63 decision on Jan. 15.
St. John’s always has plenty of athleticism, and the Irish seem to have great difficulty dictating the tempo against the Red Storm. They’re young (three freshmen and four sophomores will log almost all of the minutes tonight) and fearless, but their psyche has to be thrown off a bit with the recent loss of D’Angelo Harrison, who did not play in Saturday’s three-point loss at Providence.
Plus, the Johnnies have lost five of their last seven, and with less and less to play for now that they’re 8-8 in conference play and unlikely to land an NCAA Tournament bid, this is a good time for the Irish to even the score. St. John’s is a poor shooting team, whether it’s from the field (.422), three-point range (.289), or the free-throw line (.646).
Notre Dame’s motivation, however, should be sky high after a disappointing but not discouraging loss at Marquette Saturday in which the Irish had numerous opportunities to cut into a double-digit lead, but never could quite close the gap. The Irish know a victory tonight and at Louisville Saturday could give them the coveted double-bye in the Big East Tournament. Notre Dame will be inspired to go out a winner in the seniors’ last home game, and they should be encouraged heading to Louisville, where they won last year at the KFC Yum! Center.
Jack Cooley will be loaded with emotion tonight, and he’ll want to atone for Saturday’s game when the flu bug bit him hard, which contributed to a zero-point and one-rebound performance in 15 minutes of action.
Guards Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins combined for 35 points and eight assists against St. John’s earlier in the season, including a 12-of-19 shooting performance. But Grant turned it over six times that day and should have an easier time of it at home without Harrison on the floor.
Pat Connaughton, Garrick Sherman and Cam Biedscheid haven’t played very well and/or consistently on the road. But they combined for 15 points and a dozen rebounds in the last home game against Cincinnati while Zach Auguste is coming off a 17-point, five-rebound performance at Marquette, as well as nine-rebound effort against the Bearcats.
The emotions are right for the Irish - provided Cooley is back to health and not overwhelmed in his final Purcell Pavilion appearance - while St. John’s may be feeling a bit short-handed without their leading scorer of the past two seasons.
The time and the setting are right for the Irish to claim their 11th conference victory of the season, perhaps even with a bit of ease.
Pointspread: Notre Dame by 10
Prister’s Prediction: Notre Dame 71, St. John’s 57
Prister’s record: 23-6 straight up; 12-14 vs. points