Game Preview: St. John's vs. Syracuse

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

The Big East isn't the same as it used to be, but this weekend Syracuse will invade Madison Square Garden just like the good ol' days. Right?

It'll be written about as a rivalry. I'm sure scores of announcers, from the television broadcast to the radio airwaves, will bill it as a rivalry. But in terms of it's truest meaning, Syracuse and St. John's is flat lining as a rivalry.

Sure, Sunday at the Garden will be the eighty-eighth time the two have taken to the court to due battle. And, yeah, the they've gone at it in some real classics -- with Jim Boeheim and Lou Carnesecca, Hall of Fame coaches, playing chess on the hardwood. The pawns? Players like Carmelo Anthony and Ron Artest, Derrick Coleman and Chris Mullin. Legends coaching legends.

But that was then, and the now, as in, oh, the past decade, has seen Syracuse vs. St. John's as anything but a classic rivalry. The Orange men have been the windshield to the Red Storm's bug. Really, the only thread connecting St. John's and Syracuse, now that the Orange have moved on to the ACC and left behind the new fangled Big East, is proximity. Specifically, New York City. More specifically, who's town is NYC?

St. John's, through years and years of playing home games in Manhattan and Queens, says the Big Apple is all Red Storm. But for nearly the last decade, Syracuse has billed itself "New York's College Team." It irks Johnnies fans that SU would think NYC could be anyone's but their own. It irks, to some extent anyway, that anyone could think the Garden, and New York as proxy, could be anyone's but their own.

And that's probably the real selling point to Sunday's tilt -- St. John's says its back, despite some ugly play so far this season, and nothing would go more to proving its the true owner of NYC than beating No. 2 Syracuse.

Game Details:

  • When: Sunday
  • Where: Madison Square Garden
  • Time: Noon
  • Television: Fox Sports 1

On paper, Syracuse is exactly the team St. John's would like to avoid. The Red Storm (6-2) shot 9-of-15 from distance in their last game out (a 104-58 pounding of lowly Fordham), an aberration. As prior to that breakout game, St. John's was shooting below 30 percent from three on the season. And even after that roasting of the Rams, where at one point the Johnnies made 17 straight shots from the field, St. John's is still shooting almost two full percentage points lower from three than the NCAA average.

Which is exactly why Syracuse, with guards Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney on the wings, could be a major problem for the Johnnies. SU is once again using its 2-3 zone to bully teams around. The Orange (9-0) have only allowed more than 70 points twice so far this season. An early season schedule that has seen Syracuse beat top-15 Baylor and rip past Indiana. The zone almost hypnotizes teams into shooting 3-pointers rather than find the open cutter or drive to the lane, something St. John's is lulled into often.

Even including the Fordham beat-down, St. John's is still only taking 34 percent of its shots at or near the rim. The rest of the country? 38.3 percent from that territory. If Syracuse's defense is setting the tempo, the Red Storm could be in for a long day.

In order to avoid that Steve Lavin's group will have to utilize its one distinct advantage against Syracuse -- the bigs. Underneath Jakarr Sampson and Chris Obekpa could be the deciding factors. Sampson is scoring 12.4 points per game, having reached double-figures scoring in two of the last three games. In fact, through an inconsistent start to the season for St. John's, last year's Big East Rookie of the Year has been pretty reliable. Add in Obekpa, the nation's leading shot-blocker (5.5 per) and the Red Storm may be able to bully the Orange.

That's because the three big men for Boeheim, DaJuan Coleman, Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita, are anything but consistent. Coleman, a starter, is averaging just over 15 minutes a game, and Keita, a senior spark plug off the bench, is actually only playing 14.4 minutes of run. Christmas, a junior who has shown spots of major improvement this season, is still only playing about a half per game.

If Sampson and Obekpa can establish themselves, Sampson on the offensive end and Obekpa on the others side of the court, Lavin may be able to turn this game into a rock fight that the Johnnies can win. Plus, St. John's is averaging nearly 40 rebounds per game while Syracuse is ranks 168 in that category, pulling down just over 36 per contest.

Of course, winning will also take the usual scoring effort from D'Angelo Harrison, who leads the team at 18.9 points per, and a big effort from someone, anyone, else.

Last weekend, in the win over the Rams, it was Orlando Sanchez, who poured in 19 points in just 23 minutes of action. In previous contests, Phil Greene IV has provided some scoring pop to go along with Harrison. Whether its Sanchez or Greene, the Red Storm will need at least one more option to come through to beat a top-tier opponent. Something the Red Storm failed to do in its only other battle against a ranked opponent, a loss to Wisconsin in South Dakota.

Still, if you're looking for an X-factor here, besides an unforeseen scoring barrage from a Red Storm player, Syracuse's Cooney could be fit the bill. The sophomore shooting guard has turned into a can-miss-shooter, hitting at an amazing 48.4 percent of his 3-pointers so far this season. Where Cooney couldn't hit the broad side of the Carrier Dome last year, he has actually scored in double-figures in eight of Syracuse's nine games. If the Johnnies go zone on Sunday, something they've done repeatedly this season, Cooney could shoot St. John's right out of the game.

Regardless of who steps up and which team ultimately wins, the fact is this one-time rivalry has lost something. Most Syracuse fans only care about getting at least one game for their team in the Garden, the opponent is inconsequential. SU has moved on to a higher level; St. John's, even with a talented team and a more proven coach than recently, is searching for its first NCAA tourney win since 1999.

It's that past, distant and the not-so distant, that haunts the Red Storm. This Battle for New York is different now than it used to be for so many reasons. But for St. John's what's on the line hasn't changed. Getting back to New York City prominence, unquestioned by anyone, takes beating a Syracuse. Regardless of how anyone labels the game.

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