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Syracuse men’s basketball: what to watch for vs. St. John’s

Two former Big East rivals battle it out for the Empire Classic crown.

NCAA Basketball: Empire Classic-Syracuse at Richmond Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

After two close games in the 2022 Empire Classic, the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team will take on St. John’s Red Storm in the tournament finale.

Syracuse is coming off a 74-71 overtime victory against Richmond, while SJU narrowly escaped with a 78-72 win of its own against Temple.

The Orange will look to improve to 4-1 on the season in Brooklyn, while the Red Storm will hope to secure its sixth-straight win to begin the year.

Tip-off between SU and SJU begins around 9:30 pm and will air nationwide on ESPN2, once the third-place game between Richmond and Temple wraps up.

NCAA Basketball: Empire Classic-Syracuse at Richmond Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

With both teams looking to earn a solid win to add to their respective resumes, here’s what to watch for between the clash of former Big East Conference rivals.

Dom: Can Jesse Edwards and company lock down the paint?

Entering Tuesday night’s game, SJU ranks in the top 35 in points per game, despite the lack of three-point shooting and floor spacing on its roster. Against Temple, the Red Storm was led by the scoring duo of Montez Mathis and Joel Soriano, who both combined for 31 points on 14/20 shooting. SJU shot just 3/13 from three against Temple. On the season, St. John’s ranks 84th in three-point percentage on average volume. If SJU is going to put up a mountain ton of points, it will be in the interior. Jesse Edwards looks great defensively against Richmond, and throughout this season, he’s done a great job at playing big minutes and keeping up his defensive effort, all while avoiding foul trouble. Syracuse will need a similar performance tonight.

Christian: You don’t know if you don’t find out

Dom went with the defense end of Jesse Edwards. I’m looking at the offensive end. Jim Boeheim said in his press conference that the team need to work on finding Edwards and getting him the ball. Even against a 7-foot center in Neal Quinn, Edwards had his moments on the interior. And when Quinn left the game with foul trouble, Syracuse didn’t target the big Dutchman nearly as much. St. John’s have a similar center in Joel Soriano, who provides a similar matchup for Edwards. Even against taller competition, there’s no excuse that Edwards should only have six field goal attempts. If you want to know how Edwards is going to perform against the best interior players in the ACC, Syracuse has to start giving the ball to him now.

Kevin: Defensive intensity

Richmond wasn’t a strong offensive team so watching them pick apart the zone for the first 35 minutes of the game was disappointing. However, the Orange seemed to crank up the pressure and tighten the rotations down the stretch and that allowed them to avoid a bad loss. It’s great that Joe Girard and Judah Mintz played well on offense, but it was their attention to detail at the top of the zone which made a bigger impact. The guards have to make it difficult for the ball to get into the lane. Not only will it help keep Edwards from getting into foul trouble, but it keeps the zone from scrambling which has led to so many open 3s early this season.

Mike: Secondary scoring

Yesterday we saw Joe Girard and Judah Mintz carry the ‘Cuse attack to edge out the win. That formula might work for a good chunk of the early games, but against teams like St. John’s, we need to see some other scoring options more involved. Christian touched on Jesse, so I’ll rattle off the others. Will Chris Bell start to breakout and become another deep shooter? Is Benny Williams going to develop some consistency? How about the bench, which had a grand total of 2 points to its name last night? Maliq Brown only had 5 minutes on the floor and Quadir Copeland didn’t enter at all, so will they get a shot against SJU? The good thing is that unlike last season, there are options here, and not every single one has to work for quality wins to happen.

Szuba: Pace of play

St. John’s likes to fire from the hip on offense, playing at the third fastest pace in the country in adjusted tempo (Ken Pom). Can the 2-3 zone get set or will the Johnnies be able to beat the defense down the floor behind Posh Alexander and André Curbelo? Conversely, St. John’s is keeping teams in check on the defensive end and slowing them down. We might see a more methodic Syracuse offense in this game. I’m curious to see how the tempo of this game shakes out. As the old basketball adage goes, it’s easier to slow a game down than to speed it up. But if Syracuse can’t slow St. John’s down, look out.

What will you be watching for in today’s game?