To better scout the Syracuse Orange - St. John's opponent tomorrow at 5:15 PM on ESPN2 - we exchanged questions and answers with John Cassillo of the Syracuse site Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician. Our answers - done by Troy - will be posted in the afternoon, so look out for them.
But for now - get to know the Orange's thin front line, how great Bronx native Chris McCullough has been for the Orange, and how much the Orange fans care about the "New York's College Team" moniker.
Syracuse is 5-2, St. John's is 5-1. The Red Storm want their marquee win, and Syracuse wants to get back in the win column after losing to Michigan.
Q. Senior forward Rakeem Christmas has clearly been more of a factor this season, more than tripling his scoring average from his first three years at Syracuse. What do you think has been the biggest factor in this scoring increase?
It's been a few things. Because the team's pretty young in comparison to previous years, Christmas is the de facto leader because of his seniority. The offense is also specifically geared around him, and with help from Chris McCullough, he's been able to get the looks at the rim that may not have worked in the past (being the only real "center" on the team).
He's also staying away from those pointless fouls that kept him out of games for a lot of his career prior to this year. That's not a cue for you guys to start getting him to pick up said pointless fouls again, by the way...
Q. It looks like freshman forward (and Bronx native) Chris McCullough has clearly adapted to the college game right away, what's been the most impressive part of his game so far this season?
McCullough has a great inside-outside game and knows how to crash the boards very well -- as a result, we're also doing much better rebounding the basketball than we have in previous years. His physicality (while staying smart with contact) is probably his most impressive asset, but like Christmas benefiting from him, McCullough benefits from Christmas as well.
The team's immensely more effective with both on the floor, and both only stand to improve by way of the other one also improving (if that makes sense).
Q. Tell us about Syracuse's season so far. How and why have the Orange missed expectations?
I don't really know if they have, to be honest. Sure, they probably should have figured out how to beat Cal, but we expected to lose to Texas in the 2K Classic final any way. And Michigan was ranked above us and that game was on the road, so again, not surprised that we lost that one either.
Has everyone come to expect 20-0 starts from Syracuse? I mean, if so, great, but I think a lot of us came in expecting some struggles. A lot of inexperience in the lineup, and getting tossed right into a "real" non-conference slate sure tested them early.
The one REALLY disappointing part so far is that we're not hitting jumpers much if at all. That needs to end if we hope to finish this season with a decent tournament resume.
Q. How do you see the Orange taking advantage of the extreme lack of depth in the St. John's front court?
Does it make you guys feel better that we don't have much there either? Beyond Christmas and McCullough, Tyler Roberson is really the only other player who could see minutes in the paint. To be honest, both teams' lack of depth there could end up cancelling one another out.
Q. What other players do you see having an impact for the Orange, not only in this game, but for the rest of the season?
Hopefully Trevor Cooney, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Kaleb Joseph is the player most poised to make a jump -- if not in this game, perhaps throughout the rest of the season. He's struggled at some points, but the fact that he hasn't collapsed under the weight of expectations that come from following Tyler Ennis, Michael Carter-Williams and Scoop Jardine is definitely a good sign. I have hopes, albeit conservative ones, that he rounds into a much better player over the course of the year.
Q. It seems as though players and fans of St. John's have been chomping at the bit for a rematch with Syracuse after last year's game, do you get that same sense from Syracuse fans and players or is this just another game to them?
It's really just another game to us. That's no offense to St. John's. But after a season where a 25-0 start gave way to a disappointing finish, we have bigger fish to fry (like Duke, UNC, Louisville and UVa). We always like to assert ourselves as the "top dog" in New York, however, so we're also aware that beating the Red Storm is a means to that end.
Q. Is the whole "New York's College Team" label really that big of a deal for Syracuse fans?
I wouldn't say it's that big of a deal for us. Though we'll give it credit for at least partially getting us an ACC invite (thanks, DOCTOR Gross!). More than anything now, we just like to see how it irks other fan bases (St. John's, UConn, Buffalo, SUNJ) to various degrees.