If there's one thing the 2011 Big East Tournament quarterfinals will settle Thursday, besides Friday's semifinal matchups, it's the battle of squatters rights between the Syracuse basketball program and St. John's basketball program for Madison Square Garden (2 p.m. on ESPN).
For years, the No. 4-seeded Syracuse Orange (No. 11 in both college basketball polls) have claimed the World's Most Famous Arena as their home away from home. Considering the Orange have earned five Big East Tournament titles, while compiling a winning percentage of 63.4 percent, it's hard to argue against their claim. SU, which also plays a few yearly regular season contests at MSG, always does a solid job of drawing a large orange-wearing audience to NYC.
This season has been a bit different as the No. 5-seeded St. John's Red Storm (No. 17 in AP poll and No. 18 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll) has tried to reclaim their territory using a handful of top-notch victories at MSG, which is used as the Red Storm's home court for premier contests -- Carnesecca Arena in Jamacia, N.Y. is the official home of the Johnnies. After losing 76-59 to SU, Jan. 12, in an early-season game at MSG, the Red Storm collected five straight victories at Four Pennsylvania Plaza. Those victories, which included upsetting No. 5 Duke, Jan. 30, No. 21/19 UConn, Feb. 10, and then No. 3 Pittsburgh, Feb. 19, made red the mandatory color to wear inside MSG.
Unfortunately for St. John's fans, in the world of sports, home court is never officially reclaimed until you beat the territorial bully head-to-head. And, that's what an improved St. John's will try to do Thursday afternoon.
Led by senior point guard Dwight Hardy, the Red Storm are a much different, more confident squad than the group who played the Orange the first time around. Since then, St. John's has cut down on its mental mistakes and put the ball in Hardy's hands. Those simple tweaks helped the Johnnies win nine of their last 11 regular-season contests, vault to the top of the Big East standings and into the national rankings for the first time since 2000. Senior forward Justin Brownlee (12.1 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game) and D.J. Kennedy (5.7 rpg) have turned into solid contributors inside, while senior guard Malik Boothe (3.0 assists per game and 1.6 turnovers per game) has been a steady, ball-handling presence.
After beating St. John's, Syracuse beat the Cincinnati Beacats, Jan 15, to improve to 18-0 overall, but then went into a tailspin losing six of its next eight games. The Orange stabilized themselves when they began to let sophomore guard Brandon Triche become the leader. Triche, who's currently Syracuse's fourth-best scorer (11.2 ppg), is SU's go-to guy when struggling. With Triche and the improved play of redshirt-senior Scoop Jardine (12.6 ppg and 6.0 apg) the Orange rallied off five straight victories to end the regular season and claim the double-bye in the Big East Tournament -- ironically, St. John's controlled the No. 4 seed in the final week, but lost to the Seton Hall Pirates, March 3, to lose its one-game advantage in the league standings.
When it comes to NCAA Tournament seedings, there's not much at stake. As of Tuesday, Syracuse was predicted to earn a No. 2 or No. 3 seed, while St. John's was a solid No. 4. SU could maybe solidify a No. 2 seed with a Big East Tournament finals appearance and St. John's could move up to No. 3. In the end, this game is basically playing for New York state pride and MSG bragging rights.