KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- When St. John's and Ohio State play in the South Regional final Saturday they'll be looking to the little guys.
"Neither team would be here without their guards," said St. John's coach Mike Jarvis, trying to get the Red Storm into the Final Four for the first time since 1985 in his first year at the helm."Whichever team advances to the Final Four will represent their school well because of them. You cannot get to this point without them. It especially comes to light in the tournament."
St. John's (28-8) starts Erick Barkley at the point. The 6-1 freshman is tied with backcourt mate Bootsy Thornton as the Johnnies' leading scorer in three NCAA tournament games at 15.7 points a game.
Ohio State (26-8) relies even more heavily on its backcourt for points. Point guard Scoonie Penn, who gets most of the credit for the Buckeyes' turnaround from last year's disastrous season, is averaging 16 points a game in the tournament. Guard Michael Redd leads at 21.3 points a game in the tournament.
"If I had my druthers, I'd prefer to have four double-figure scorers instead of two around 20 like we do," Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien said. "We've been concerned about that all year. Teams often try to take Scoonie and Michael out. We've been fortunate. We always seem to find someone to take up the slack, and that changes from game to game."
Barkley said after Thursday's 76-62 victory over Maryland he felt he could go past Maryland's Terrell Stokes whenever he wanted.
Penn, who will guard Barkley Saturday, found that interesting.
"I feel like we can play with anyone," he said. "He had a great game yesterday. Maybe he did feel he could go by Stokes whenever he wanted to. I don't know if he'll feel that way about this game."
St. John's does not rely as heavily on its guards for points, sporting an offense that defines "balanced."
Barkley, Thornton, Ron Artest and Lavor Postell are all averaging in double figures in the tournament, and the fifth starter, Tyrone Grant, averages nine points a game. All five averaged in double figures during the regular season.
The versatile Artest, in fact, pulls a lot of backcourt duty at 6-7. He was the trigger man in St. John's successful approach to Maryland's full-court pressure on Thursday.
After Penn and Redd, the next highest scorer for Ohio State in the tournament in Jason Singleton at eight points a game.
"This is guard time, and Penn and Redd are a great backcourt," Jarvis said. "I think you'll see some great matchups. We'll have Erick on Scoonie and two or three people on Redd. If those combinations neutralize each other, it'll come down to the best front court."
With only 40 minutes standing between them and a trip to the Final Four in St. Petersburg, Fla., Jarvis admits he's got a slightly different take on the situation than his players.
Being a game away from the Final Four is as much of a surprise to Ohio State as it is to anybody else. After finishing 8-22 a year ago, the Buckeyes admit they just hoped to make the tournament this year.
"Last season definitely helped us," said 6-11 senior center Ken Johnson, the Buckeyes' leading rebounder. "We know what it's like to be on the bottom.