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Game #12: St. John's at Syracuse Orange

The Red Storm start their conference season with a match up against the Syracuse Orange at the Carrier Dome tonight at 7 PM.

The Illinois/ USC bowl game/ pasting (49-17, University of Southern Cal, Deadpsin’s take here, and Foul Balls’ take here) reminded me that the worst kind of game for your favorite team is not the game where your team misses a chance to hit that shot to ice it, or when your team is taken out in a single bad defensive run. The worst is the kind of game where your team is getting its ass served and there were only a few moments where your team would have been credibly competitive if they continued at that pace. The kind of game that makes your team look like a Division III squad.

One ass kicking is a learning experience. Multiple ass kickings are proof that your team doesn't belong. The Syracuse Orange are the kind of team that lets a squad know they don't belong.

It's hard to gauge St. John's chances positively because they play down to the competition in a manner that is unseemly, even with 8 freshmen. It's not that Red Storm fans expect Oden/ Conley, or we expect Durant/ Augustin, but with so many talented freshmen, the fans would like to see a little more "talent" and a little less "second-half collapse".

To top it off, the Red Storm never plays UP to its opponent, exactly—they’ve found themselves beaten soundly by Virginia Tech (the stats show how dominated St. John’s was) and by Miami (where the score reflected how the team got physically worked over). We'll know better how well they get up for teams once they face the Orange, who are better than all of the squads the Storm has had on its schedule.

Syracuse Orange Logo - Old School

Syracuse Orange

The Orange play at one of the fastest paces in the nation, and play a short bench. Antonio "Scoop" Jardine (sg) is a new starter, a defensively-minded freshman replacing Eric Devendorf. Donte’ Greene (f) and Johnny Flynn (pg) have been phenomenal freshmen. Arinze Onuaku (f/c) is their center, and has found an efficient offensive game along with his shot-blocking, offensive rebounding, and free-throw rate. And Paul Harris (g/f) is their go-to guy, even if he is not their most effective scorer. Though on this team "ineffective" means he knows better than to take too many ill-advised shots.

Keys to the Game:

Hard and Scrappy. Come out hard like two-day old sh*t, to paraphrase A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg. St. John’s has generally played their games defensively ugly, turning the ball over, giving it back, playing physical. The team has to come out with an underdog attitude and harass Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris, and Donte’ Greene into mistakes, botched transistion passes, and bad shots.

Then again, Donte’ Greene consistently makes bad shots from inside, outside, and above the rim, so that might not help. DJ Kennedy and Paris Horne, in particular, have to turn the scrappy game opportunities into production. In all of this scrappiness, as always, this teams needs to keep the feet moving and not foul. The players have improved on this—Sean Evans and Tomas Jasiulionis, in particular, have been able to stay on the floor, set hard screens, and body up players without drawing penalties/ giving the other team free throws. If the Red Storm establishes a physical game and gets back on defense, they may get some opportunities at the line and in the paint to make this game an upset.

Cavernous, Crowded, Rowdy, Just Like You Wanted It, Right? Again, this is the Big Time. The freshmen came to St. John’s for exposure, playing time, and to compete against the best. Hopefully they have learned from the Virginia Tech experience and will look for chances to quiet the crowd.

Anthony Mason Jr. will also have the chance to be a one-man offensive wrecking crew, and to improve on his 4-12 performance against Virginia Tech. His passing ability, provided he has a chance to drive at the hoop, will get other players shot opportunities in solid position. The Orange players will also be geeked up for their first conference game; we can only hope they’re too geeked, and that St. John’s can find a way to take sophomore Paul Harris out of the game.

Find the Gaps. We all know the keys to playing against the 2-3 zone—ball movement and get in the gaps. The best Syracuse teams hardly leave any gaps to exploit, and to beat those teams, an opponent needs offensive rebounds and a very good effort from beyond the three-point line. This Syracuse team is notably questionable on defense. They play at a fast pace but don’t seem to hold other teams down, giving up over 90 points to Rhode Island and U Mass, two teams who like to look for early shot clock opportunities.

In tonight’s game, it’s up to Larry Wright/ Paris Horne/ Eugene Lawrence/ Malik Boothe/ Anthony Mason Jr. to find opportunities to drive at the basket, and it’s up to Justin Burrell and Tomas Jasiulionis to find rebounding opportunities, especially on the offensive end. I think they will be looking for the boards—zones are notorious for not positioning players to block out rebounders—but they have to convert any second chance opportunities they can. Syracuse’s Arinze Onuaku and Donte’ Greene manage to block a number of shots, so the Johnnies have to keep taking shots close in. Rob Thomas and Sean Evans will have opportunities, also, to show off mid range game and athletic out-of-area rebounding.

Score More Points. It always seemed simplistic to say "score more points than your opponent," but that trite coach-speak phrase is apropos here. The Red Storm don’t score very much, and part of the problem is that none of them are particularly effective scorers, with the possible exception of Anthony Mason Jr.’s good day and Larry Wright, when he’s feeling confident enough to shoot. I don’t know why this is; but a few efforts I’d like to see are:

1. Jasiulionis looking for his shot. He shoots so infrequently he can’t be taken seriously even as a decoy. He has to add a little more touch to his repertoire, and look balls (and rebounds) into his hands and hold them for a second, but he could be a better scorer. Not a big scorer, not over 6 pts/g, but at least a light threat.

2. A drive or two from Malik Boothe. He’s got to get himself more involved in the offense.

3. Fundamentals! Anthony Mason Jr. seems to have perfected the off-balance jumper, but maybe going straight up and not kicking out the legs would help your scoring touch, Mase. DJ Kennedy and Eugene Lawrence also could improve their shooting strokes by setting their feet before launching a shot. Kennedy is definitely improving in this area. Sean Evans has improved his bull-rush drives at the basket, even if his touch is a little concrete.

I’m not predicting anything on this game. Vegas has St. John’s as 12-point underdogs. Never a good sign for your team’s chances. Along with the 5 road wins in 4 years for Norm Roberts' St. Johns teams. But if they play well, the Red Storm might just score over 70 points and have something positive to build on offensively.

Some news links on the game:

NY Post:

The offensively challenged Red Storm (6-5) are trying to bounce back from an ugly loss to Virginia Tech in the Aeropostale Holiday Festival.

Quite a way to start the league season in the Carrier Dome. Syracuse can score but can't defend. St. John's can defend but can't score.

The Red Storm shot just 28 percent from the field, including 19 percent in the second half of a 54-48 loss to the Hokies. It was as inept an offensive performance as we've seen from St. John's in years. When asked how to correct such ineptitude Roberts made it sound simple.

"I would say attack the basket and keep going and attack the basket, force fouls," he said. "Screening better, making sure to pay attention to detail defensively. Those are things they are going to learn."

That just might work against the Orange. Boeheim has been forced to use more man in addition to his trademark 2-3, but his young team may have a hard time stopping a snow plow with no chains and four blown tires.

NY Daily News:

[Coach Norm Roberts] says that most first-year players need "four to six games" to figure out what it's going to take to win. That doesn't exactly bode well for the Red Storm, which begins conference play Wednesday at Syracuse with eight freshmen.

At least Roberts can count on the PA announcer at the Carrier Dome not to make the same gaffe as last season and introduce him as Norm Stewart, the former Missouri coach….

Several Red Storm freshmen began to play tentatively last Saturday after committing turnovers or having shots blocked, something Roberts suggested might have been a result to their first exposure to playing at a big venue - the Garden. Again, it's not a good omen for St. John's. Syracuse (10-3) plays in one of the country's most hostile environments.

"I don't know why I wasn't focused," said freshman D.J. Kennedy, who has scored in double figures six times, but had just two points to go with six turnovers against Virginia Tech. "I don't like to think it had anything to do with where we were playing....I know what the (veterans) have been telling me about the Carrier Dome. Their fans bring it every game."

Big East Basketball Report:

...Lawrence must also choose his spots offensively. Lawrence has shown the ability to draw fouls and get to the line and that will be important against a very thin Syracuse line-up.

Playing against a zone team, offensive rebounding opportunities will also arise. Justin Burrell, DJ Kennedy and Mason all will have excellent opportunities at second chance points. They must convert these opportunities to keep pace with SU, who will look to run when the shot is taken, sometimes even before they corral the rebound.

Syracuse Post-Gazette:

Syracuse enters tonight's game with a 10-3 record, but injuries and defections have left Boeheim with a roster that consists of five freshmen, two sophomores and a junior college transfer. Boeheim is starting three freshmen for the first time in his 32-year tenure.

In chronological order, Syracuse has lost the services of junior guard Andy Rautins (knee), sophomore center Devin Brennan-McBride (shoulder), senior guard Josh Wright (academics) and, most recently, junior guard Eric Devendorf, who was averaging 17.0 points per game when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a Dec. 15 game against East Tennessee State.

Freshman Jonny Flynn said of watching Big East games on TV: "Just the level of competition that the Big East Conference has. Game in and game out, the hard-fought battles. You got the sellout crowds, you got the media, you got everything that makes you want to go to a school like this. We're starting the Big East season and this is what I have been waiting for."

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle:

"In the beginning of the year we were trying to outscore people," said freshman point guard Jonny Flynn, who had 13 points. "Going into the Big East, if we keep our defensive mind-set that we have now, we'll be pretty good."

Syracuse's four-game winning streak is quite the opposite of what St. John's is dealing with.

The Red Storm has lost five of its last seven games after starting the season 4-0. Virginia Tech defeated the Red Storm 54-48 Saturday in the championship game of the Aeropostale Festival at Madison Square Garden in New York.

St. John's, which beat Marist 62-59 in the first round, was 5-for-26 from the field in the second half (19.2 percent).

So far Syracuse and St. John's have one common non-conference opponent — Tulane. The Orange defeated Tulane by 13 points in early December, while Tulane defeated St. John's 79-71 in the Rainbow Classic.

USA Today:

This hasn't been the start that coach Norm Roberts was hoping for. Through 11 games, St. John's is just 6-5, and even with Anthony Mason Jr. nearly 100 percent, it fell to Virginia Tech in its own holiday tournament.

Among the problems — putting the ball in the basket. St. John's enters January ranked 14th in the league in scoring, and it's not because the team shoots the ball particularly poorly. It's that it doesn't give itself much of a chance to score.

The Red Storm are last in the league in total rebounding, and 14th in rebounding margin. Getting more specific, the team struggles on both ends of the court, ranking 15th on the offensive end and 13th on the defensive end. It's also 13th in steals, so it's not like the team is making up for that by earning more possessions with its defense.

Moreover, those numbers have come against a non-conference slate that's not nearly as challenging as the teams the Red Storm will face when the Big East schedule begins. Not having Mason early in the year contributes to the poor numbers, but though Mason is very good, he's not superhuman. His return won't suddenly vault the team to the top of the charts.

The Sports Network via NY Newsday

GAME NOTES: A set of teams ready to kick off the Big East portion of their schedules collide at the Carrier Dome tonight, as the St. John's Red Storm tangle with the Syracuse Orange. The Red Storm enter the contest on a low note, as they dropped a 54-48 decision to Virginia Tech in the title game of their own Holiday Festival tournament on Saturday. It was the second loss in the past three outings for SJU, which dipped to 6-5 overall. The team now turns its focus to Big East play, where it finished 7-9 a season ago. As for Syracuse, it has caught fire of late, winning a season-high four straight games. Each win has come at home and by double figures, including a 95-74 trouncing of Northeastern on Sunday. Now at 10-3 overall, the Orange are set to begin Big East play after posting a 10-6 ledger in 2006-07. Syracuse owns a 43-37 edge in the all-time series with SJU, and each team won on its home floor in two meetings last season.