St. John's and Syracuse will face off tonight for the second time as non-conference foes, as the 5-1 Red Storm travel upstate to the Carrier Dome to take on the 5-2 Orange. For St. John's, they'll look to pick up their first win at Syracuse since January 1999, when head coach Mike Jarvis and forward Ron Artest led the Johnnies to a 75-70 road victory over the Orange.
In fact, it's been seven years since the Red Storm have defeated Syracuse at all, a streak dating back to January 2007. Head coach Steve Lavin has yet to conquer the Orange so far since taking the job in 2010-11, going 0-5 in his first five meetings with Syracuse, including a 77-58 loss in his lone trip up to the Carrier Dome in February 2013.
"Naturally, certain games on your schedule have more significance and are more meaningful because of history between programs. This group is looking forward to the challenge of playing against Syracuse in the Dome," said Lavin.
This road challenge should be another extremely important test for the 5-1 Red Storm, who are off to one of their best starts in the Lavin era. Aside from being their first true road game of the season, tonight should give St. John's a clear vision of where they stand on a national stage.
A lopsided loss wouldn't ruin the very young season obviously, but it would set the Johnnies back a few steps. On the other hand, if the Red Storm were able to come into the Carrier Dome and pull off the upset, it would certainly give them a great deal of confidence going forward.
After hanging with a top 10 team in Gonzaga last week, some may be expecting St. John's to take the next step and not only stay with top teams, but beat them. Tonight is a perfect chance for them to do just that.
Like most other teams this season, Syracuse should have an advantage over St. John's in the frontcourt, led by senior forward Rakeem Christmas. The 6'9" Christmas comes into tonight's game averaging over 17 points and 8 rebounds per game, both easily career-highs. Freshman forward and Bronx native Chris McCullough also has easily adapted to the collegiate game so far, averaging 14.6 points and 8.9 rebounds in his team's first seven games this season.
Those two coupled with forward B.J. Johnson should give the depleted Red Storm frontcourt some troubles tonight, especially if they can draw forward Chris Obekpa into foul trouble as Gonzaga did last week.
St. John's players seem to be more than familiar with this height disadvantage that they've been facing so far this season.
"They are bigger than us, but just as big as Minnesota and Gonzaga so we will not see anything we haven't already seen this season. We just have to take care of the paint and we will be fine because they struggle from the outside," said guard D'Angelo Harrison. Clearly that was a slight jab at the shooting of Syracuse led by junior guard Trevor Cooney, who was shut out in the meeting between these two teams last year.
If St. John's is going to pull off their first win at Syracuse in nearly two decades, two things almost certainly must happen. First of all, they'll need guard Rysheed Jordan to play smart, relatively turnover-free basketball, something that he hasn't done over the past few games. After being benched in Tuesday night's win over Niagara, Red Storm fans will have to hope that Jordan takes that as motivation going forward and plays more mistake-free basketball.
And secondly, St. John's will need their biggest of big men, Chris Obekpa, to come ready to play tonight. Obekpa, who is ranked 6th in the nation with just under 4 blocks per game, had arguably his worst game of the season last week against Gonzaga, as he scored one point and grabbed 4 rebounds before fouling out after playing just 22 minutes, despite blocking 3 shots.
Obekpa and forward Sir`Dominic Pointer's presence in the paint tonight will probably be the most important factor in the game's result.
Whether or not any of those things happen tonight, one thing is for certain, this Red Storm team is tired of losing to Syracuse. When asked to recall last year's game for reporters today, Harrison finished his thought by saying "I don't want to lose to them anymore. Simple."