SU needs to make a statement to ensure it doesn't spend a third straight year languishing in the NIT. The opponent, Saint John's, will be an interesting test for SU, but one that SU will need to pass with flying colors (winning by double-digits) in order to be considered a success.
However, St. John's, despite losing leading scorer Anthony Mason Jr. early in the season, has been a decent team at home, posting an 11-6 record there and winning four Big East games there, including a triumph over Notre Dame. Moreover, the Red Storm has only surrendered more than 70 points in a game just four times at home (Duke, Cincinnati, Boston College and Miami – the last three all sitting on the tourney bubble). St. John's has developed a balanced scoring attack this season under coach Norm Roberts. With seven different players putting up more than five points per game, St. John's has a somewhat deep team.
As well as limiting their opponents' scoring at home, the Johnnies also keep it close with them – their largest margin of defeat at home this season is fourteen points. And that's considering they've played Louisville and Connecticut there as well.
The Red Storm will be a tough test for SU, one that will likely come down a contrast in styles of play. If SU can get out and run with its superior athletes and re-establish the post, this could become a laugher. However, St. John's will look to slow the tempo of the game down. The Red Storm are a remarkable 12-2 when they give up less than their season average of 67 points per game. That average ranks them as one of the Big East's better defensive teams, despite their current spot in the conference standings. On the flip side, they are just 1-12 when giving up more than 67 points.
Six Keys To The Game / Pressing Questions
- What's the zip code for Low Post, USA? Syracuse's main shortcoming in its game against Villanova on Sunday was its inability to establish the low post whatsoever. The Red Storm's biggest man checks in at 6'8", 250 lbs. (at least biggest man that receives significant playing time). That should be a recipe for domination by SU, but the game against Villanova should have been dominated by SU in the low post. Instead, the ‘Cuse's three biggest players totaled just thirteen points.
- What to expect out of Johnny Flynn tonight? Nobody knows, perhaps not even the man himself. He has a tendency to struggle greatly, especially shooting the ball, against better teams, while he's always filling the stat sheet up against some of the bottom-feeders on the schedule. The whole SU fan base still awaits that first signature Flynn moment (whether it be a game-winning three or whatever). He's had his chances, notably Sunday against ‘Nova and last year against Georgetown (on the road) and UConn. Until he converts a few of those big plays down the stretch and works a bit more on being a pass-first point guard, it's a bit premature to anoint him as a member of the Mount Rushmore of the current best point guards in college basketball.
- Speaking of the low post, SU is 14-0 when big man Arinze Onuaku scores eleven or more points in a game. If Arinze isn't fully healthy and won't be for the rest of the season, perhaps it's best to get some kind of scoring threat in the paint into the game. SU might in fact be better off going with Kristof Ongenaet and Rick Jackson at the 4 and 5 spots over RJ and AO, because Onuaku just has not had that bounce in his step or that enthusiasm in his game, like we saw when he took it coast-to-coast on Notre Dame back in January.
- As much as fans might not want to make a ‘thug' like Eric Devendorf a bigger part of the team, it needs to be done. Albeit, he's awful at defense (so use Rautins when in man-to-man) and is a walking turnover (that problem's a bit harder to solve…), but Devendorf is (surprisingly, to some) the team's top three point shooter at 38% per game. The disparity between his and Rautins' shooting percentages is 1.3% this season, but the difference between the two in the clutch is immeasurable. We all remember the painful last minute against Villanova when Andy had two or three looks at three, none of which fell. Devo, on the other hand, thrives in the clutch. If you had to choose a player to take two free throws at the end of a game, it would be Eric. If you wanted a three, you'd let Eric take it. If you needed a strong drive to the hoop for a layup, it would be Eric. While I'm not arguing he should be handling the ball more, I think his teammates need to get better at giving him the ball in advantageous situations, as he is one of the better shooters and finishers on the team.
- How confident do you feel about Jonny Flynn from three-point range? And how much do you trust SU's three-point field goal defense. Because the Red Storm has three players in its rotation that have better percentages from distance than our Flynn, named Paris Horne, D.J. Kennedy and Justin Burrell. It could be a long night for SU and a longer wait for Jimmy's twentieth win this season if we let that trio get going.
- St. John's is sloppy with the ball at times, averaging nearly fifteen turnovers per game and shooting about 43% from the floor and 64% from the stripe. All of that should be a good combo for SU to exploit in a run-and-gun style of game. The key tonight will be who can establish their style early. SU was the Comeback Kids earlier this season, notching wins over Kansas, Virginia and Cornell after trailing by double-digits early. Since then, SU has not fared nearly as well when it gets off to a bad start. So establishing the pace of the game and being able to dictate the tempo from a position of authority (having an early lead) is what will give SU an eighth conference win.
Prediction: Syracuse 77, St. John's 67