QUEENS, N.Y. – There will be a palpable buzz inside Madison Square Garden Sunday afternoon when St. John’s hosts long-time rival Syracuse for the 90th meeting between the storied college basketball programs. The nationally televised contest on FS1 tips off at noon.
Winners of two-straight, and three of the last four, St. John’s (6-3) enters the highly-anticipated matchup looking to collect its second-consecutive win over the Orange for the first time since 1993. However, the Red Storm roster underwent a complete transformation from last year’s group that snapped the Orange’s 55-game non-conference home win streak at the Carrier Dome.
This year’s squad features a blend of nine newcomers, including five freshmen, who will be competing against Syracuse for the first time in their careers, and for many it is just their second game playing on St. John’s home court in Midtown Manhattan. Christian Jones, Felix Balamou and Amar Alibegovic are the only returnees from St. John’s 2015 NCAA Tournament squad, while Alibegovic is the only member of the current roster who saw action in the 69-57 victory on Dec. 6, 2014 over the Orange.
Despite the lack of experience, St. John’s has reason to be optimistic as it enters Sunday’s contest with a perfect 5-0 home record this season, including a 63-56 victory over St. Francis Brooklyn in the team’s Garden debut last week. Freshman Yankuba Sima delivered a spectacular performance with his first-career double-double, recording 17 points on 8-for-12 shooting and 10 rebounds to go with five blocks. Sima, a 6-foot-11 center, leads the BIG EAST and ranks second in the nation with 33 blocks.
Graduate student Durand Johnson, the only newcomer who had previous collegiate experience at the Garden from his time at Pitt, also quickly found his comfort zone playing under the bright lights of MSG. The 6-foot-6 wing erupted for a career-high 19 points, which included his clutch jumper that just beat the shot clock with 32 seconds remaining to put the Terriers away.
While St. John’s youthful squad will be introduced to the rich tradition of the St. John’s – Syracuse rivalry that spans over 100 years, for head coach Chris Mullin, the Orange are a familiar foe. As a player, Mullin’s St. John’s teams produced a 6-2 record against Syracuse over his four year career from 1981-85, and on Jan. 23, 1985 he became the first in program history to eclipse 2,000 career points doing so against the Orange at MSG. Now patrolling the sidelines, Mullin will guide the Red Storm with first-hand knowledge of attacking Syracuse’s infamous 2-3 zone to put his team in position to pick up its third-straight win.
St. John’s will need an all hands on deck effort against a veteran-laden Syracuse roster. Jones has been one of the Red Storm’s top performers, as of late, averaging a team-high 12.8 points and 8.0 rebounds in the past four games. Freshman Federico Mussini continues to impress as he is coming off his seventh double-digit scoring performance in nine games this season. The 6-foot-1 guard is the 12th leading scorer in the BIG EAST and has led the Red Storm in scoring seven times.
Syracuse (7-2) is receiving votes in the Top 25 polls, breaking into the national rankings on Dec.1 after taking home the Battle 4 Atlantis title. The Orange knocked off ranked opponents Connecticut and Texas A&M to take the crown of one of the premier regular-season tournaments. Syracuse is coming off a 78-51 victory over Colgate on Tuesday at the Carrier Dome.
Senior guard Michael Gbinije leads Syracuse in scoring (19.7 ppg), assists (4.6 apg) and steals (2.9 spg). He is joined in the backcourt by red shirt senior Trevor Cooney, who is second in scoring averaging 14.3 points per game.
About the series:
• St. John’s is 38-51 all-time against Syracuse in a series that dates back to 1912.
• Syracuse is St. John’s sixth most frequently played opponent with 89 all-time meetings.
• The former conference rivals will meet for the 34th time outside of BIG EAST play.