U.Va. gears up for NIT meeting against weakened St. John's

As soon as Virginia came off the John Paul Jones Arena floor Tuesday night after its 67-56 win against Norfolk State, U.Va. coach Tony Bennett knew what his team had to work on heading into a National Invitation Tournament second-round matchup against St. John's.

Norfolk State made life especially stressful for Bennett and his players in the second half by pressing and making it a serious chore just to get the ball across midcourt. Based on the intelligence Bennett was able to gather immediately after the Norfolk State game, St. John's (17-15), apparently isn't shy about taking the same kind of cutthroat defensive approach on occasion.

Since the press isn't something U.Va. (22-11) saw a lot of during the Atlantic Coast Conference season, Bennett hopes his players learned their lesson.

"We'll find out…St. John's will certainly press you some," said Bennett, whose team will host St. John's on Sunday morning. "They're very athletic. It's about people coming to the ball and being in the right spots."

Norfolk State forced U.Va., which is one of the No. 1 seeds in the NIT, to commit 17 turnovers with the help of its ravenous pressing style. St. John's is forcing opponents to commit an average of 13.8 turnovers per game, which is fifth in the Big East — more than Big East NCAA tournament representatives Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Marquette and Notre Dame.

While No. 5 seed St. John's has been solid in terms of getting opponents to cough up the ball, it has struggled in a lot of other areas down the stretch this season. Missing leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison this month hasn't helped.

Harrison, a sophomore guard, is leading St. John's with an average of 17.8 points per game, which is also third in the Big East. He was suspended from the team March 1 for the rest of the season for reasons that weren't revealed by coach Steve Lavin.

In Harrison's absence, St. John's lost five consecutive games prior to Tuesday night's 63-61 win at St. Joseph's in the NIT first round. The late losing streak took St. John's off the NCAA tournament bubble and relegated it to the NIT.

With Harrison gone, St. John's is now led in scoring and rebounding by freshman forward Jakarr Sampson (14.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game). St. John's is 11th in the Big East in field-goal percentage (41.7), 12th in scoring offense (65.2 points per game) and last in 3-point field-goal percentage (27.7), but it's third in turnover margin (plus-2.5 per game) and fifth in rebounds per game (36.5).

Lavin knows his way around the postseason. He's in his third season at St. John's, where he's led the Red Storm to a bid to the 2011 NCAA tournament and this season's NIT appearance.

He coached at UCLA from 1996-2003, taking the Bruins to six consecutive NCAA tournaments, including five appearances in the regional semifinals. He won a national championship in '95 as an assistant coach with UCLA.

If U.Va. wins, it'll be headed to its sixth appearance in the NIT quarterfinals, where it would host Iowa. A victory in the quarterfinals, which will take place Tuesday or Wednesday night, would send U.Va. to New York City and Madison Square Garden for the April 2 semifinals.

"We weren't fortunate enough to make it into the NCAA tournament, but there's no shame … the NIT is a great tournament," said guard Joe Harris, who leads U.Va. with an average of 16.7 points per game. "We're thankful to be in this position. Hopefully we'll make a run here, play for as long as we can and get an opportunity to play in Madison Square Garden."

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