With a win over West Virginia, close losses against Duke and Villanova, and a win at a hard-fought 87-81 road win over DePaul, St. John's (10-12, 4-6 Big East) looks like a much more offensively capable team than a few weeks ago. The players are taking steps to get better and better, in the words of the increasingly confident and commanding point guard Phil Greene.
But are they good enough to topple the second-ranked Syracuse Orange?
It's been a long decade of Orange dominance, with St. John's winning once in eleven tries in since the 2001-02 season. We'll delve into this more, but St. John's has given the Orange some close calls - last year in the Big East Tournament, and in 2008 as well.
St. John's fans know that some wins mean more than others. And taking back Madison Square Garden from the Orange fans with a win would be a true highlight of the season.
Scouting the Orange, and figuring out how the Red Storm can knock off Jim Boeheim's bunch, below the fold.
Tickets are scarce (plug alert! - SB Nation's ticket partner TiqIQ has some available for Cuse/ Red Storm). Fans are excited for the noontime tip. Even Coach Lavin used his first tweet to mention the game.
Mood Music: Diamond D, Step to Me (video, opens in new window)
Tip Off: 12:00 PM, Eastern
Vs: #2 Syracuse Orange (22-1, 9-1 Big East)
Location: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
TV: ESPN | ESPN3 Radio: Bloomberg 1130 | Sirius 91 | XM Channel 91
Pomeroy page ($)
See also: 5 questions on the Syracuse Orange with Orange:44 | Storm Warnings: St. John's: St. John's midterm report: team + player reviews and statistics
Storm Warnings: Syracuse
The Syracuse Orange have simply been dominant in college basketball this year, one of two one-loss teams in the NCAA (Murray State is undefeated). And for the Orange, success has come with very few close calls, and a lot of consistency for coach Jim Boeheim.
We know Syracuse runs their 2-3 matchup zone with great efficiency, choking off two-point attempts and making two-point shots difficult to hit (but stifling outside shots as well). And they manage to lead the Big East in percentage of opponent possessions that end in a turnover.
In coach Mike Dunlap's words, St. John's needs to "run before the zone sets up."
The offense has been excellent as well, owing to a low turnover rate and excellent two-point shooting. They have players who can get deep into the paint, and players who can hit jump shots like the pros.
There's no one most-dangerous player on offense; the team's leading scorer is wing Kris Joseph, and he puts up 13.7 points per game. The second-leading scorer, guard Dion Waiters, comes off of the bench (but has been deadly since setting foot on campus last year). The Orange attack is led by Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche, both of whom can assume the role of passer or of jump shooting scorer.
Interestingly, the last three games - all without Fab Melo - have also seen a dip in Syracuse's offensive efficiency. That period includes their first loss and a close call with West Virginia. Melo's offense isn't Jared Sullinger's, though his replacements provide a lot less on the floor than he does. It might be that Melo's defense leads to Cuse offense. Or that Dion Waiters - the player whose last three games' statistics have shown the most slump - somehow benefits from Melo.
Strengths/ Weaknesses: Syracuse
Orange strength: Hitting two-point shots. The Orange are capable of getting shots at the rim in transition and from the drive, but they will stop and pop for jumpers. St. John's has to keep them jump shooting, which also keeps them from driving deep in and drawing fouls.
Orange strength: Flustering the opponent. Syracuse can be frustrating to play against. They make excitement plays - they force bad shots, they get steals, they block shots (best in the Big East) they run well in transition, and they get their crowds swelling behind them. Despite being in Madison Square Garden, the Johnnies need to keep the crown on their side; many Syracuse alums live in New York, and will be at the game.
Orange weakness: Rebounding. The return of Fab Melo and his huge frame (7 feet tall, big wingspan) should help the Orange rebound. But all year, Cuse has only been okay at rebounding their own misses and poor at rebounding opponents' errant shots. Part of that is the natural difficulty of marking opposing bodies and position for boards in a zone, but a lot of that is talent and awareness. St. John's badly needs second shot opportunities.
Orange weakness: Not enough contact? The Syracuse guards and wings are talented... and they love proving they can hit jump shots. They are good enough that such a plan works, and each rotation player shoots over 48% inside the arc. Still, if those shots stop falling like they did against Notre Dame, Syracuse doesn't get to the line enough to compensate.
Five Points/ Keys to the Game
Make them work on defense. St. John's has to keep the ball moving, even against extended pressure. Moving the ball by dribbling probably won't cause the zone to break and create spaces to get inside, which St. John's needs to do if they want to score. Sir`Dominic Pointer and Phil Greene have to be strong facilitators, and St. John's will want to take advantage of holes by driving hard to draw fouls.
Defend Dion. Dion Waiters has been one of the most consistent Syracuse players. He's also the one most likely to take a shot when he's on the court. The Johnnies have to make scoring hard on Waiters and make Triche/ Jardine/ Joseph put up points. Not to say they can't, but Waiters' recent struggles have slowed down the Cuse offense. Can Amir Garrett and Sir`Dominic Pointer stop him with their height and activity?
Control the crowd. The game can't get out of hand, or it'll start to feel like a road game. St. John's must control the pace and restrict the Syracuse transition game.
Transition scoring. Scoring on Fab Melo, et cetera won't be easy; the Red Storm have to look for early offense (and hit those shots).
Prediction: the young team will be game, but Syracuse's size, talent, and experience will overwhelm them. Syracuse wins 77-60.