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St. John's vs Syracuse preview: can the Johnnies take one upstate?

St. John's has a grueling two-game stretch against two of the more intimidating teams in the conference, starting with Jim Boeheim's club.

The Johnnies' defense will be put to the test.
The Johnnies' defense will be put to the test.

The 7-2 Syracuse Orange are at the top of the Big East table, and St. John's is currently sixth, but ten teams are within 1 game in the win column. Separation won't be easy in this parity-filled Big East. But one constant has been the Syracuse Orange near the top of the table and firmly nestled in the national rankings.

Game Information
Tip Off: 3:00 PM Eastern
Vs. Syracuse Orange
(19-3, 7-2 Big East; coach, Jim Boeheim)
Carrier Dome, New York, NY
(capacity: 34,616)
Radio: Bloomberg 1130
Announcers: Dave Pasch + Dan Dakich

But the Orange are thinner and smaller than the team that looked to run away with the Big East title before moving on to the ACC. The Orange are waiting on a University eligibility ruling on wing James Southerland of Bayside's Cardozo HS and also without big center DeJuan Coleman. Syracuse lost back-to-back games before taking out Notre Dame on Monday at home.

If there was ever a time for a surprise performance, a time to show the potential of the St. John's season, this is it. A time to take revenge on the throttling the Orange handed the Johnnies last season. The team is on national television and on the road against Syracuse on ESPN on a Sunday afternoon.

St. John's hopes for the NCAA Tournament don't bank on a win against the ninth ranked Syracuse Orange.

But given the season's earlier slip-and-falls, knocking off the Orange - objectively one of the best teams and programs in the country - would put the Johnnies firmly on the right side of the bubble.

Mood music

For your northern punky moods: Canadian Rifle, "Health"

For your northern retro Canadian dancehall moods: Snow, "Informer"

Scouting St. John's

St. John's knocked off UConn in a tight 71-65 game at the Garden, taking out yet another team that had been road favorites (albeit slightly) against the young Red Storm. Once again, the Johnnies did it with defense, limiting the Huskies to under 25% shooting inside the arc and outside the arc in the first half.

The defense continues to do its thing, confusing shooters on the catch and making penetration all the way to the rim hard in the halfcourt.

Point guard Jamal Branch didn't play against the Huskies, recovering from his strained MCL, and isn't expected to play against Syracuse; the team showed few ill effects from not having him, in part because JaKarr Sampson (14 points, 6 rebounds in Big East play) continues to improve and Marc-Antoine Bourgault (11.5 points per game in his last two contests) continues to shine with playing time. Against the Syracuse zone, Sampson's mid-range shooting and Bourgault's long-range bombing are obviously key.

Meanwhile, D`Angelo Harrison has struggled for the past two games, shooting 1/10 outside of the arc and 2/10 inside of the arc (most of those misses came in Harrison's 0/9 Georgetown game).

Importantly for this game, Phil Greene IV has committed five turnovers in the past nine games (h/t to Quinn for the stat). He handed out 6 assists and made a pair of clutch shots to help maintain the Red Storm lead against Connecticut.

The Johnnies hit 11/12 free throws to close out the game against UConn.

Against Syracuse, every free throw will count - if they can draw fouls against the moving 2-3 zone.

Scouting Syracuse

Syracuse leans heavily on the wing scoring of CJ Fair, who averages just under 16 points and 7 rebounds per game in Big East play. He's the team's most reliable outside shooter, knocking shots down at 36% in league play. He's as long and athletic as Jakarr Sampson, but with more range.

The infamous Syracuse zone stifles scoring and forces opponents to take a lot of three-point shots; and they complement that defense with length and thievery. Long point guard Michael Carter-Williams and veteran guard Brandon Triche earn 4 steals per game in Big East play. Those steals can be killer; the Orange's athleticism is high-end, and they won't miss many easy chances going at the rim with Carter-Williams' passing (6.2 assists per game in BE play).

Watch for those big guards (MCW is 6'6"; Triche is 6'4") on defensive rebounds as well. They can take long caroms and turn them into points rapidly.

The Cuse front line is thin but talented. Jerami Grant - Notre Dame wing Jerian Grant's brother - is playing out of necessity. Against Pitt's defense, he scored 5 points on 1/8 shooting in the loss; against Notre Dame, he scored 14 on 6/8 shooting in the win.

If he's on, he can provide balance for an Orange team that's dependent on sometimes-errant three-point shooting. The team is hitting 30% on shots from the outside.

Keys to the Game

Can the Johnnies keep composure?

Loudness of the Carrier Dome rattles opponents. Without a second ballhander and facing the pressure from the Orange, can the Johnnies keep their composure, handle and move the ball with purpose, and weather Syracuse's runs?

Can Syracuse score against the Storm?

The Johnnies 2-point defense faces an Orange team that doesn't shoot well outside the arc and doesn't have a strong post presence, despite the defense of Grant and Rakeem Christmas. Chris Obekpa and Sampson have to continue to be presences.

Can the Johnnies control the tempo?

The Red Storm's offensive style early in games isn't patient, it's aggressive. But against the tough zone and on the road, aggressiveness has to be balanced with the poise to bleed some clock to keep the fans quieter. Can the Storm show that poise?

Which team makes plays on the glass?

Both teams struggle on the glass at times, but Syracuse is bigger. Rakeem Christmas is a tip-in/ put-back threat, as is Baye Keita.

Prediction: This game will have moments, but Syracuse takes it, 69-55.

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