Here are three things to watch in Saturday afternoon's game between St. John's (16-9, 8-5 in Big East) and No. 4 Pittsburgh (24-2, 12-1) at Madison Square Garden.
Tip-off is at noon ET, and the game will air on ESPN. The game will also be available on ESPN3.com.
"We're well aware that for over a decade now, [Pittsburgh's] been the dominant team in the Big East," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said on a conference call Thursday. "And this year in particular, [they've been] as impressive as any team in the country at methodically dismantling oppoenents with their defense, their physicality.
"We're well aware we've got our hands full."
FULL STRENGTH? Ashton Gibbs -- Pitt's leading scorer (16.3 points per game), who has missed the team's past three games due to a partially torn MCL in his left knee -- has been cleared to return on Saturday. The Panthers were able to win at West Virginia (by five) and at Villanova (by three) in his absence, as well as beat South Florida at home by 12. But Jamie Dixon and Co. will be very happy to have Gibbs back in the lineup.
Let's see if Gibbs looks like his normal self, though, or whether the injury hampers him at all.
Lavin said he thinks Pitt might be even better because of Gibbs' injury. "Any time you have an injury or a player that misses a couple ballgames, it provides an opportunity for other players to step up and produce," Lavin said. "And as a result, a team can gain confidence in their ability to continue to win in spite of a key injury. Then when that player comes back, you've now got a stronger team."
NUMBERS DON'T LIE: If you take a look at Pittsburgh's team statistical rundown, it's no wonder the Panthers have as impressive a record as they have. Pitt is ranked among the nation's leaders in far too many categories to mention here. But there is one category in which Pitt is ranked No. 1 in the country:
Rebound margin: Pittsburgh outrebounds its opponents by an average of 12.1 per contest. And St. John's is one of the weakest rebounding teams in Division I -- ranked No. 304 in rebounds per game (out of 336 schools), at 31.9 per game.
That being said, the Red Storm outrebounded UConn -- another very strong rebounding team -- 41-31 in their win over the Huskies last week. St. John's must box out and crash the boards again on Saturday.
BATMAN & ROBIN: Everyone knows how good Dwight Hardy has been of late for St. John's -- 26 points or more in four of the team's past six games. Hardy must come up big again for St. John's to even hang with a team as good as Pitt.
But the Red Storm need a second scorer to step up on Saturday as well. For much of the season, that's been Justin Brownlee -- but keep an eye on D.J. Kennedy in this one. Kennedy had his best game of the season in that win over UConn (20 points, 11 rebounds) last Thursday. And he also scored 15 points in St. John's last game, an 80-68 win at Marquette on Tuesday.
Lavin has been urging Kennedy to be more aggressive offensively all season. "He's the hub of the wheel for us offensively, because of his versatility," Lavin said. "When he's influencing the game offensively and defensively, we're a much better team."
Perhaps the fact that Kennedy is a Pittsburgh native will inspire him to be more proactive on Saturday.
"It would mean a lot to me, being a kid who comes from Pittsburgh," Kennedy said on Friday. "I grew up in the backyard of Pittsburgh and was always watching their games. I've been here for four years and haven't been able to beat them. So it would be great to me and something that I'd always remember -- being a senior and being able to beat a team I grew up rooting for."
It's a big game for St. John's in general. No, the Red Storm don't need it to make the NCAA Tournament. But a win would effectively guarantee St. John's would be ranked in the top 25 in the country for the first time since Nov. 28, 2000.