A Garden Party

Syracuse returns to the most famous arena in the world on Thursday for a big early season test.

With a trip to Madison Square Garden this week in the final rounds of the Wounded Warrior Project 2K Classic, the Syracuse Orange is returning to a familiar place.

Returning to the most famous arena in the world, the No. 23-ranked Orange has a ton of familiarity when it comes to playing in the home of the New York Knicks and New York Rangers.

The original host of the famed Big East tournaments, the Garden has seen some of the best basketball that the collegiate ranks has to offer in recent memory, especially for Syracuse. Who can forget the thrilling six-overtime win over Big East-rival UCONN in the quarterfinals of the 2009 Big East Tournament? That’s arguably the greatest game in college basketball history, depending on who you ask.

But, with games against California and the winner of Texas vs. Iowa awaiting, this trip to the Garden is a big test for a young and inexperienced Orange team.

“It’s always fun to go up there, some of us guys are familiar with it,” senior center Rakeem Christmas said. “But, we’re still treating it as just another game.

“We still have work to do.”

While Christmas and junior guard Trevor Cooney will be familiar playing in the hallowed mecca of hoops, freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph and freshman forward Chris McCullough will be making their New York City debut, which holds a special place for the Bronx-native McCullough.

Expecting “a bunch” of friends and family to be in attendance could be added pressure for the 6-foot-10 McCullough, coupled with the bright lights of national television on such a big stage.Despite the daunting task, the frosh said that he couldn’t wait to place in the Garden. The trip to the Garden will be even more difficult for head coach Jim Boeheim, who’s taking a young team into New York City to square off against an experienced Cal Bears team led by head coach Cuonzo Martin and a trio of experienced players in Jabari Bird, Jordan Mathews and Tyrone Wallace.

“They’re difficult games,” Boeheim said acknowledging that Iowa had beaten Hampton by 40+ points earlier in the season. “Obviously Texas is in the top 10 and Cal is a good team. We’ve had three difficult, difficult games with them.

“These games will give us a good indication of what we need to do better and what we need to work on. We’ve got a very difficult schedule, so there’s a lot of work to do with this team. We’re not even close to where last year’s team was.”

Tip-off against the Cal Bears is scheduled for Thursday at 9 p.m. EST on ESPN2. The winner will take on the winner of Texas-Iowa, Friday.

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