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December 14, 2013

Rulers of the Empire State: St. John's v. No. 2/3 Syracuse

While many have been troubled by the state of New York sports, especially that of the state's two NBA teams, the focus has shifted to which basketball team is really representing the Empire State.

An unofficial battle of which squad should claim the title of "New York's team" will take place on the hardwood at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.

Unlike previous years, St. John's and No. 2/3 Syracuse are set to meet for a non-conference contest. In fact, this will be the first matchup between the teams since the Orange (9-0, 0-0) joined the ACC, and the Red Storm (6-2, 0-0) remained a member of the new-look, basketball-centered BIG EAST.

"Whoever wins the game and plays the best can take that title. So far they [Syracuse] have been 'New York's Team' since they have been winning games," said St. John's junior swingmanSir'Dominic Pointer. "To take over New York, we have to win games."

The game against Syracuse will be the Johnnies' second contest tipping off against an ACC opponent this season -- the first resulting in a 69-58 victory over Georgia Tech (Nov. 30).

Although MSG is the Red Storm's second homecourt during the season, Syracuse has a huge following which pack the arena better than the St. John's faithful. As a result, contests against the Orange tend to have the look and feel of a road game. St. John's will need to show much resolve in the home-turned-hostile environment during high-pressured moments of the game.

"I hope our fans come out and support us," said Pointer. "The last couple years I saw a lot of orange shirts out there. Hopefully this year we see a lot of red shirts."

The Johnnies are coming off a 104-58 win over Fordham at The Garden on Dec. 7. St. John's shot an impressive 66 percent from the field, which included a superb 60 percent from 3-point range. Red StormSteve Lavin said after the matchup with the Rams that he realistically did not expect his squad to have a game like that again; however, the team's effort served as a foreshadowing of great things to come and also gave the squad the needed confidence going into the contest with the highly-touted Syracuse.

"It gave us a lot of momentum for this game," said St. John's junior guard D'Angelo Harrison. "That's how we are supposed to play. We shared the ball. We need to sustain a high level of play."



Chris Obekpa - 6-foot-9, 240-pound sophomore center
JaKarr Sampson - 6-foot-9, 214-pound sophomore forward
Sir'Dominic Pointer - 6-foot-5, 196-pound junior swingman
D'Angelo Harrison - 6-foot-4, 204-pound junior guard
Phil Greene IV - 6-foot-2, 189-pound junior guard


DaJuan Coleman - 6-foot-9, 280-pound sophomore forward
Rakeem Christmas - 6-foot-9, 250-pound junior forward
C.J. Fair - 6-foot-8, 215-pound senior forward
Trevor Cooney - 6-foot-4, 195-pound redshirt sophomore guard
Tyler Ennis - 6-foot-2, 180-pound freshman guard



Syracuse remains undefeated, conquering opponents on average by a margin of about 15 points. There are very few teams that have been able to disrupt the flow of the Orange's 45.9 percent shooting accuracy, or be productive against a frustrating 2-3 zone.

As a result, opposing teams have chucked ill-advised 3-pointers, allowing Syracuse to dart out to early leads using damaging surges with its formidable high-low game.

Although some have tried to slow the Syracuse offense with a basic zone of their own, most are not as crafty as the Orange with that style of defense. In addition to that, the team has too many lethal options at different parts of the floor with different offensive specialties to lock down.

"Syracuse is a good basketball team and it's no surprise they are ranked No. 2 in the country," said Lavin. "We're aware that we have a great challenge in this matchup but we are looking forward to Sunday's game."

Syracuse uses a long starting lineup, as three players are 6-foot-8 and taller. In fact, a few minutes into the game, head coach Jim Boeheim can shift to a lineup with a reliable group of four players 6-foot-8 and taller. Boeheim uses a regular rotation of eight players.

Syracuse has four major scoring options (three starters and one off the bench) on the team, which are responsible for making 72 percent of the squad's baskets. They are also the ones who have the green light to take the Orange's shots, totaling 65 percent of the team's attempts.

Syracuse's leading scorer is senior forward C.J. Fair. One of the nation's best players, the long, lanky and athletic Fair averages 17.8 points a game on 46.2 percent shooting from the field. He also grabs about five rebounds a contest. What makes Fair hard to guard is his super athleticism and solid midrange game.

Teammate redshirt sophomore guard Trevor Cooney adds the perimeter game, knocking down about three 3-pointers a matchup. As a result, Cooney nets 15 points a game on 47.4 percent from the field, including a sharpshooting 48.4 percent from beyond the arc.

On average, about two of every three shots attempted by Cooney are 3-pointers.

The young stud, Tyler Ennis, is the thread that seamlessly gets the ball to the hot hands. Ennis averages about five assists a matchup, but also has the ability to put the ball on the floor and points on the board. The freshman guard averages 11 points a contest on 41 percent shooting.

Sixth man of the bench, sophomore forward Jerami Grant is a player similar to teammate Fair. He is very fluid for 6-foot-8, being third on the team in scoring. Grant averages 13 points a contest, nailing 52 percent of his attempts. Despite making no 3-pointers this season, Grant manages to make his buckets off baskets and second-chance opportunities nearer to the rim.

In addition to his point efficiency, Grant grabs six boards a contest.

"They are good on the offensive glass," said Red Storm junior guard Phil Greene IV. "Sometimes their best offense is a second shot. They also like to play in transition and are a great, athletic team. It will be a challenge for us but we will be up for it."

The aforementioned players can get up and go, and are known for picking balls loose from primary and secondary ball-handlers. The Orange steal nearly 11 balls a game, which easily convert into transition baskets.

Though the squad does not usually get much offensive production from its starting bigs -- sophomore DaJuan Coleman and junior Rakeem Christmas -- the duo serves as deterrents to penetrating guards.


Despite all the tools Syracuse has in its starting lineup, the Orange are soft down low in terms of productivity. Coleman and Christmas, in spite of their formidable frames, only account for about nine points and eight rebounds combined.

Instead, the Orange get their 36 boards a game by committee.

Though Syracuse turns the ball over only 9.8 times a game, Fair, alone, commits three turnovers a matchup. If Fair is saturated by an aggressive defense, he tends to cough up the basketball more.

Also, during high-pressured times, Fair, Coleman and Christmas, as well as teammates off the bench 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Michael Gbinije and 6-foot-10 senior center Baye Moussa Keita, are foul-prone.

KEY MATCHUP: Sir'Dominic Pointer and C.J. Fair

"He's 6-8, he's a good ball-handler and he can shoot the ball," said Pointer. "He can shoot over a little guy and if you put a big guy on him, he goes around him. He's a matchup problem. But our big guys can run and do the same thing."

Pointer would be the best option to put on Fair since he plays a very dynamic, suffocating and aggressive game. When Pointer is in the zone, he makes his opponent's game ugly because he does so many things at his size.

"I pride myself on defense and being one of the best defenders in the country," said Pointer, "so I have to step up and take the challenge."

Although Pointer cannot match Fair's offensive production, he will be able to use his lock 'em up defense to slow down Fair. Pointer is shorter than Fair by three inches, but Pointer's energy and vertical make up for it.

"Dom is one of those unique players that has the ability to disrupt opponents with his defensive prowess," said Lavin. "He's been our most productive player over the last three years based on his statistical data. Dom is a cut above everybody in terms of production at both ends of the court."

It has been observed in past Syracuse games that were won by a narrow margin that when Fair was held to lower than average point totals, games were closer in differential.


  • See KEY MATCHUP: Sir'Dominic Pointer and C.J. Fair

  • St. John's should take full advantage of its quickness as to get out in transition to score baskets before the Syracuse half-court 2-3 zone is set up.

  • If playing man-to-man defense, the Red Storm must be careful not to overreach and foul. The Johnnies never should want to give excess points to a team that already can produce in numerous ways without usage of the stripe.

  • Should St. John's utilize a basic zone, the squad must extend their zone from the onset as to prevent players, like Trevor Cooney, reasonable length for 3-pointers. The Johnnies need to keep the sharpshooter from getting any light from beyond the arc.

  • Since Syracuse's bigs in the starting lineup -- Coleman and Christmas -- are soft pieces in terms of production in points and on the boards, when the ball is passed to the interior, the Johnnies have the upper hand. So, players like sophomore center Chris Obekpa, senior forward Orlando Sanchez and senior forward God'sgift Achiuwa should not panic, but show the same poise it does when up against other frontlines.

  • Despite the girth of Coleman and Christmas, St. John's should not be afraid to penetrate against the bigs. Since Syracuse's frontcourt is prone to foul trouble, that should be an added benefit for the Storm.

  • Even if St. John's gets stuck behind the zone in the halfcourt, the Red Storm are not to rush to execute into a 3-pointer. If St. John's chucks shots, Syracuse will capitalize and go on an early surge for a substantial advantage. Instead, the Storm are to probe different options before forcing a long-range shot. If a trey is the only option, the Johnnies need to get it to the shooters so as to not waste possessions.

    "We know it's an important game, but at the end of the day it's about staying grounded in process and development," said Lavin. "This matchup for our fans and team is a big game, but what I'm most focused on is continuing to make incremental progress so we are better positioned to play our best basketball come March."

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