uring Ashton Gibbs’ absence, the Pitt men’s basketball team gravitated its focus away from… During Ashton Gibbs’ absence, the Pitt men’s basketball team gravitated its focus away from the 3-point line, making only four shots beyond the arc in three games.
On Saturday, Gibbs, Pitt’s leading scorer and best 3-point shooter, will return to the floor after missing time with a partial MCL tear in his left knee. The No. 4 Panthers (24-2, 12-1 Big East) will take on St. John’s (16-9, 8-5 Big East) in Square Garden at noon.
“It was tough being on the bench,” Gibbs said. “I was probably the happiest man in the world when they gave me the OK to play. I’m definitely happy to be back on the court.”
Pitt guard Travon Woodall, who started in place of Gibbs at point guard, said it’ll help the team to have another scorer on the floor. He added that head coach Jamie Dixon effectively prepared the team to play without Gibbs and the Panthers performed like an experienced squad in picking up three wins.
“[Dixon] shows us that we’re a veteran group and prepares us well enough to go out there and play our game,” Woodall said. “Obviously, our scoring kind of went down, but we got to step up on defense and do a lot more of the things we didn’t when we had Ashton in the line-up.”
Gibbs said his return date was the doctor’s decision and that his knee is close to 100 percent recovered.
Although Gibbs will definitely play against the Red Storm, it’s unknown whether he’ll start or come off the bench.
Pitt is leading the conference by two games over Notre Dame, and a win in Madison Square Garden could very well solidify that spot with only four games remaining on the schedule.
But St. John’s will be no easy task, as the Red Storm have proven with wins over No. 9 Georgetown, No. 8 Notre Dame, No. 5 Duke and No. 13 Connecticut. At the same time, the Red Storm suffered puzzling losses to St. Bonaventure and Fordham.
“They’ve been playing good recently,” Gibbs said. “I think the good team is going to show up, especially because they’re playing at home. It’s a great atmosphere.”
St. John’s is sitting at fourth in the Big East and a win could not only knock Pitt down a notch, but also put the Red Storm into serious contention for the Big East regular season title. As Woodall knows, a win would also add to St. John’s NCAA Tournament resume and the Red Storm seniors, who have never played in the tournament, will be looking for a bid this year.
“[St. John’s is] playing with a lot more sense of urgency than last year,” he said. “They want to make the tournament. Nobody wants to go through college without making the tournament … I think their coach is doing a great job of having the seniors step up.”
Pitt will utilize its talented frontcourt rotation that paces one of the nation’s top rebounding teams. Forward Nasir Robinson posted another big game against South Florida Wednesday, notching a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Justin Burrell and Pittsburgh native D.J. Kennedy, the Red Storm’s leading rebounders, will look to keep pace with Robinson and 6-foot-11, 250 pound center Gary McGhee on the boards. However, Burrell pales in comparison to McGhee in terms of height, coming in at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, whereas Kennedy plays more as a guard-forward hybrid.
Do-it-all senior guard Brad Wanamaker will also be a huge factor, bringing his averages of 12.6 points, five rebounds and five assists per game into the contest. After a big game against No. 10 Villanova in which he led all scorers with 21 points, the Philly product led the Panthers over the Bulls on Wednesday with 13 points and five assists.
The Red Storm’s leading scorer, senior guard Dwight Hardy, averages 17.1 points a game. Defensively, the Panthers have been able to shut down the opposition’s star guards to date this season, with the exception of Connecticut’s Kemba Walker in December.
One of the biggest strengths for the Red Storm is their experienced roster that features 10 seniors.
“We’re definitely looking for a tough game,” Gibbs said. “We’ve got to come out early and jump on them, and the rest will carry itself.”
For the Panthers, the Garden has turned into a home away from home of sorts. Pitt won the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer in the Garden earlier this season, although the arena will certainly be rocking with the re-energized Red Storm fan base Sunday.
“St. John’s is playing pretty well,” Woodall said. “They’ve had their ups and downs. But the Garden is our home also. So we just got to keep playing well like we have been.”
Staff writer Kelly Flanigan contributed to this report.