What makes a good rivalry? Tradition, obviously, and a long history of squaring off with each side having an equal chance of winning. That’s probably the best kind of rivalry, isn’t it? The type of game where you don’t really know at the outset what’s going to happen, where you can throw records out the window because a real rivalry game means anything can happen. That clown up there with the umbrella knows about rivalries. That’s because that clown is Brian McNamee, and through his relationship with Roger Clemens he no doubt has at least a passing familiarity with the Yankees and Red Sox rivalry. Why do I bring up Brian McNamee? Because he went to St. John’s, an old Big East foe that, at this point, it’s hard to still think of as an actual rival.
I know that back in the 1980’s when the Big East was really taking off and becoming a national behemoth, there was a true rivalry between Syracuse and St. John’s, even if it flew secondary to the rivalry with Georgetown. And then as soon as guys like Chris Mullin and Walter Berry and Mark Jackson were out the door, the rivalry sort of faded. Sure, there were some good games against some solid St. John’s teams that featured the likes of Zendon Hamilton, Felipe Lopez, and Ron Artest.
But basically, ever since Lou Carnesecca retired in 1992, has it truly felt like a rivalry? To put it into another perspective, let’s go back to that whole “either side has an equal chance of winning” thing I was talking about before. This match-up was, in fact, pretty even through the 80’s and into the 90’s, but it hasn’t really been competitive for the last decade. Syracuse owns a 51-37 record against the Johnnies, and has won each of the last nine games, most by a pretty sizable margin.
In fact, the last time St. John’s beat Syracuse was in January of 2007, when Paul Harris, Demetris Nichols, and Eric Devendorf were the stars, Josh Wright was the starting point guard, and the team was headed for the NIT. So it took a down year for Syracuse for the Johnnies to topple the Orange. This wasn’t exactly a world beater of a team for St. John’s, either — in fact, I defy you to try to name one player from that roster without looking it up. I’m going to go ahead and wager that not a single person will be able to tell me the name of that season’s leading scorer.
Of course, that leads us to tomorrow’s game, and it should make every Syracuse fan a little nervous. See, this has all the makings of a down year for Syracuse, at least by our recent standards. And compared to that 2006-2007 Syracuse squad, our perimeter game looks even worse. That wasn’t a particularly great team by any stretch, but they still had guys like Nichols, Devendorf, and Andy Rautins, three guys who shot the ball a hell of a lot better than anyone currently on Syracuse’s roster.
In reality, people probably forget just how well that team shot the ball. Heck, even Josh Wright was hitting 32% of his threes that season, and Matty “Gunner” Gorman was coming off the bench to shoot 46% (admittedly, on a limited number of attempts).
But, let’s get back to the topic at hand, and that’s the St. John’s game. This whole scenario should give you a familiar feeling to that 2006-2007 game, simply because we’re seeing an above average St. John’s team while trying to work out some pretty serious deficiencies of our own, and that could leave us susceptible to what would probably be considered an upset loss. St. John’s is 5-1, but that record is a little bit inflated by the lack of competition they’ve played. They don’t have any “good” wins yet, and their one loss came against Gonzaga. However, they played the Zags tough, and only fell by a score of 73-66.
The team is led by D’Angelo Harrison, a 6-foot-4 guard who enters the game averaging 17.5 points and 9.0 rebounds-per-game, and he’s also knocked down 12 of the team’s 28 made three pointers this season. The next leading scorer should be a name familiar to Syracuse fans who follow recruiting, with Rysheed Jordan having been the next option behind Tyler Ennis at point guard. He’s averaging 16.0 points, but isn’t really a threat to stick any long range jumpers, hitting just 4-of-17 threes so far this season. He is a very athletic, big, rugged guard though, so it’s essential to keep him out of the lane. Of course if he does get into the paint and draw fouls, he’s far from automatic from the charity stripe. He takes nearly 10 free throws per game, but he’s only shooting 61.2% from the line. Not exactly a sparkling number for your point guard.
Sir’Dominic Pointer and Phil Greene IV are the next best scorers so far, each averaging 10.7 points-per-game. The 6-foot-6 Pointer is also pulling down 8.7 rebounds-per-game when he’s not out jousting and doing other knight-type stuff, while I think we can all agree that, even though I haven’t seen Phil Greene’s I, II, or III, the fourth installment in a franchise is usually a disappointment. Don’t worry, Phil, you still might wind up better than Phantom Menace.
Overall, this isn’t a team that’s going to burn Syracuse from deep. There isn’t a single zone buster on the roster, unless Harrison gets hot, and the next best shooter, going strictly by numbers, is a little used freshman guard named Myles Stewart. Stewart has good size to shoot over the zone at 6-foot-5, and has hit 5-of-13 attempts from deep. His percentage of 38.5 is the best on the team (among anyone who has attempted more than two), and overall the team hits just 28.9% overall.
What the Johnnies do well is rebound and force turnovers. They’re grabbing nearly 44 boards-per-game, out-rebounding their opponents by nearly six each time out, and are forcing opponents into an average of 17 giveaways. They actually forced Gonzaga into 17 turnovers, including three for National Player of the Year candidate Kevin Pangos. Kaleb Joseph is going to have to work to protect and take care of the ball, in other words.
This should wind up being an interesting game, and chances are it’ll be a bit of a slugfest — the kind of grind it out game where both teams struggle through long stretches of stagnant offense, with the team that creates the most extra opportunities, either via turnovers or offensive boards, coming out ahead at the end of the day.
In other words, it could be just the kind of physical battle to reignite a rivalry that’s been pretty boring and lopsided for quite awhile.