By virtue of a Jan. 12 victory over St. John's at Madison Square Garden, Syracuse earned the fourth and final double-bye in the Big East tournament. Unlike last season, coach Jim Boeheim would like to see his team capitalize on that advantage.
The 11th-ranked and fourth-seeded Orange open tournament play Thursday at MSG where they go for their sixth straight victory over No. 17 St. John's, which makes its first quarterfinal appearance since 2003.Led by 18 points from junior forward Kris Joseph and a 2/3 zone that held the Red Storm to 36.8 percent shooting, Syracuse (25-6), then-No. 4, improved to 17-0 with a 76-59 victory on Jan. 12.The Orange have won 11 of 12 versus St. John's.Needing a victory in its regular-season finale to earn the final double-bye in the Big East tournament, Syracuse routed DePaul 107-59 on Saturday at the Carrier Dome for the most lopsided victory in conference history. The Orange, whose 12-6 conference record tied the Red Storm (21-10), have won five straight since a 2-6 skid halted their 18-0 start."I think right now we're playing our best basketball all year," said senior forward Rick Jackson, the Big East defensive player of the year who is averaging 13.1 points with a conference-best 10.7 rebounds.Syracuse, though, knows it's not going to waltz through the conference tournament. After a 28-3 regular season lifted them to their first Big East crown since 2003, the Orange became the sixth No. 1 seed to be bounced in the opening round of the conference tournament, falling 91-84 to Georgetown in last year's quarterfinals.While Jackson, point guard Scoop Jardine and the Orange play just their third game in 13 days, St. John's has a short turnaround following Wednesday's controversial 65-63 victory over 13th-seeded Rutgers.The fifth-seeded Red Storm broke up a long out-of-bounds pass with 4.9 seconds left, and St. John's senior Justin Brownlee picked up the loose ball and threw it into the crowd as time expired. The clock, however, still showed 1.7 seconds as Brownlee took three steps and stepped out of bounds with the ball. The referees, though, left the court and the Red Storm escaped with the victory despite making no field goals in the final 4:11.Big East commissioner John Marinatto issued a statement after the game saying that Brownlee traveled and stepped out of bounds on the play and the clock should have stopped with a change of possession."It was kind of chaotic. A little Keystone Cops at the end," said Red Storm first-year coach Steve Lavin, whose team has won 10 of 12. "… (We were) just fortunate to get the win."St. John's, winner of four straight versus ranked opponents, is 8-1 at its second home this season, but Lavin remembers how the Orange dominated in their last visit to the Garden."They were hitting on all cylinders," Lavin recalled. "…You know they will be well prepared. We're going to have to rebound and be patient against the 2/3 zone."Red Storm leading scorer Dwight Hardy, an All-Big East selection, had a team-high 17 points Wednesday despite missing 12 of 17 shots. He hit St. John's only two 3-pointers and scored 12 points in the Jan. 12 loss.Brownlee had a team-best 13.The last time St. John's won twice in the tournament was 2000 when it went 3-0 and defeated Connecticut for the title.The winner plays No. 1 seed Pittsburgh or ninth-seeded Connecticut in Friday night's first semifinal.