Johnny links

--Spread check: Louisville by 12

--St. John's is 0-2 in league play, but the Reed Storm are finally on the road to playing with a full deck.

"St. John's hasn't been healthy in a while, and they could be the healthiest they've been with Anthony Mason Jr. coming back and their point guard," UofL coach Rick Pitino said.

Unlike past seasons, St. John's 0-2 Big East start isn't indicative of a team that is woefully outmatched. The Red Storm hasn't finished higher than 10th since the league expanded to 16 teams for the 2003-04 season.

When it's been near full strength, St. John's has been much more competitive. Witness its 80-71 loss at Duke and 66-59 loss at Georgetown.

"They're much better than they have been because they're very good off the bounce," Pitino said.

--Rick Pitino says the key to a St. John's resurgence is keeping local players.

Nevertheless, Pitino knows how important the Red Storm can be, and believes that Norm Roberts, now in his sixth year, has the program going in the right direction as the teams prepare to meet today at noon in Louisville (SNY, WBBR 1130 AM).

"Certainly St. John's wants to be one of the marquee names because of their great tradition, and they're certainly capable of doing that," said Pitino, whose team is 11-4, 2-0 in the Big East, and features former Rice High School standout Edgar Sosa. "It's all about keeping the great players home. That's the bottom line. St. John's has always been great when they keep the Walter Berrys, Mark Jacksons, people like that."

That hasn't happened lately, with local stars such as Lance Stephenson going to Cincinnati, Sylven Landesberg landing at Virginia and Loughlin's JayVaughn Pinkston headed to Villanova.

St. John’s has three starters three payer who are at least 6-8 and 235 pounds, including forwards Sean Evans and D.J. Kennedy, both of whom rank in the top-20 in the Big East in rebounding.

The Cardinals by contrast have just one starter over 205 pounds. Yet 6-foot-9, 265-pound sophomore center Samardo Samuels has struggled to get into a rhythm early in games.

"From the moment we start stretching and warming up, if he plays great, then obviously, he’ll do that in games," Pitino said. "He doesn’t do that in practice either. It takes him a while to get going. It just takes him a while, it’s amazing. You could stretch and loosen him up for 45 minutes and he’s still a slow starter."

Pitino said he is ready for a low-scoring game and knows his team will have to grind it out under the basket.

--Johnny Jungle says this is a battle of two teams who have headed in opposite directions since conference play began, and takes Louisville by 13.

The Meat Grinder. Slow the game down. Make it physical.  In a fast-paced game, St. John’s is likely to come out the loser; while the Red Storm has shooters, they sometimes go cold, while Louisville has a full roster of inside and out scoring.

Make The Understudies Make Plays. Stopping the stars isn’t enough; Pitino’s team can win with contributions from their bench and role players. But If those role players have to become the stars?  Some of the youth on the Cardinals has been inconsistent.  If St. John’s can minimize Samardo Samuels’ effect inside, and frustrate Edgar Sosa, that leaves the game up to some players who may not be ready to take the game over.  Jerry Smith and Preston Knowles are experienced, talented players; but the backup forwards are learning their way in the game.

Get Hot In the Winter. St. John’s will also need either a hot shooting not overall, or a great stretch of scoring to hang with the Cardinals.  They’ll get some run outs – and need to make those shots count.  But I think this game will require a run of difficult/ defended shots, good offensive movement, and determined play.

Prediction: A tough road game for the Storm. Louisville wins, 75-62.

--It's possible that we might see a little extra fire out of Edgar Sosa, who will be playing against a team he claimed he "hates" two years ago.

"I hated St. John's and I still do hate St. John's," he said. "If I played bad this whole season, but played good against them, that would make my season. All the kids growing up in New York City liked them, but I never liked them even a little bit. When they started recruiting me I acted like I liked them, but I knew I wasn't going there."

Oh, sophomore Edgar.

--And, of course: game notes.

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